Posted on October 31st, 2015 1 comment
Reading the “news” can be a painful experience in our time. Most of it consists of a blend of sensationalism, human interest stories, accounts of the lives of various vapid celebrities, and attempts to inspire virtuous indignation based on a half-baked knowledge of some ideologically loaded issue or other. One finds very little that could be accurately described as useful knowledge about things that are likely to have a major impact on our lives. I generally find Fox News less painful to read than what is commonly described as the Mainstream Media because I happen to be emotionally conservative. However, I must admit that Fox can occasionally be more ham-handed than the competition when it comes to dishing out propaganda.
A story that recently turned up on the Fox website is a case in point. It happened to be about the Ivanpah solar generating system that was recently completed in California’s Mojave Desert. The word “solar” should enable most readers to predict the ideological slant on the story one is likely to find at Fox. Sure enough, the title of the story is, “Taxpayer-backed solar plant actually a carbon polluter.” In the article itself we learn that the plant,
…is producing carbon emissions at nearly twice the amount that compels power plants and companies to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program.
In fact, the plant does emit CO2 because it burns natural gas to avoid damage to equipment and to serve as a baseline source of power to meet electricity needs at night or during cloudy days. A bit further on, we learn from a “research fellow at the Heartland Institute” named H. Sterling Burnett that,
…designers also erred in placing Ivanpah between the tallest mountains in the Mojave where there is significant cloud cover and dust which would interfere with the sunlight.
He adds that,
…They say it is green, but that assumes that there is a power source without any environmental impact.
I don’t find anything as egregious as actual lies in the article. Rather, Fox limits itself to “creative” use of the truth. For example, it may be quite true that the plant, “…is producing carbon emissions at nearly twice the amount that compels power plants and companies to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program,” but it’s also true that it produces far less carbon per unit of electricity delivered than a purely fossil fuel fired plant, a fact that is left unsaid in spite of its much greater relevance to the underlying issue of climate change. A researcher at the Heartland Institute is quoted without mentioning that the institute is funded by the fossil fuel industry, and is considered a source of blatant disinformation by environmentalists. That charge may be unfair, but one can hardly claim that it is irrelevant and should be ignored. As for his claim that, “designers also erred in placing Ivanpah between the tallest mountains in the Mojave,” etc., I invite interested readers who may happen to visit Las Vegas to drive out and have a look at the plant. It’s actually quite a spectacular sight. It certainly doesn’t appear to be sitting in the shadow of towering mountains, and the cloud cover is generally minimal, as one can confirm by Googling nearby locations. As for the dust, one surmises that it would have been worse if the plant had been built on the Los Angeles side of the mountains. As for Burnett’s last remark, as far as I am aware not even the most wild-eyed and fanatical environmentalist has ever claimed that the description of a power source as “green” implies the assumption that it has no environmental impact at all.
The reality is that the plant is reasonably sited given the location of the major consumers of the power it produces. Given the current limitations in our ability to store and distribute the excess power produced by renewable energy sources like wind and solar, some form of baseline power is always necessary to insure a steady supply of electricity when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. My own choice for that purpose would be nuclear, but given the regulatory hurdles in the way, that would probably have been impractical for Ivanpah. Natural gas produces significantly less CO2 than, for example, coal, and was probably the best choice.
In short, the article is an example of what I have referred to above as “attempts to inspire virtuous indignation based on a half-baked knowledge of some ideologically loaded issue or other.” If the goal at Fox had been to inform rather than propagandize, they would have provided the reader with “fair and balanced” information about the cost of electricity produced at Ivanpah compared to alternative sources, the amount actually produced in comparison with predictions, the amount of CO2 it produces per unit of electricity in comparison to coal or oil fired plants, the relative advantages of solar and nuclear in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, etc. None of what I write here should be taken to imply a belief that solar should be preferred to any alternative. In fact, my own choice would be to reduce the regulatory burden to rational levels and build next generation nuclear plants instead. However, regardless of the technology involved, I would prefer to see it judged on a level playing field.
I know, I know, the MSM is hardly innocent of slanting the news. Indeed, its hysterical response after the announcement that Sarah Palin would be John McCain’s running mate puts anything I have ever seen at Fox News completely in the shade. Generally, however, it tends to be at least marginally more subtle. For example, instead of attempting to slant important news stories that don’t fit its narrative, it will often simply ignore them. If the story is too big to ignore, it will vilify the messenger instead. Of course, such techniques reflect a greater maturity and experience in handling agitprop than is available to the team at Fox News. However, that doesn’t prevent them from learning by example. Given that we will be subjected to propaganda no matter which “news” source we choose to follow, we should at least be able to demand that it not be crudely done.
Posted on June 12th, 2015 10 comments
The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier. That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin. It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more. Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists. These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.
Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him. However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well. For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF. In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state. Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.
For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal. It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.” It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview. It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter. Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”
As it happens, I am a scientist myself. I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present. I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming. However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.
In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface. Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena. A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art. It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data. The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.
In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built. The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate. These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems. In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions. The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values. The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.
In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades. If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment. However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities. Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives. Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger. To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?
For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm. The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources. Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized. Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas. Instead he was bullied and vilified. A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn. In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time. At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth. There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.
Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism. Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it. Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.” I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame. Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist, here. There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist. No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff. Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.
Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk. I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten. Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website. In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures. And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan. Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad. Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Go figure! One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.
Posted on October 4th, 2014 No comments
No doubt the outcome of the Nazi unpleasantness resulted in attitude adjustment in Germany on a rather large scale. Clearly, however, it didn’t teach the Germans humility. At a time when a secular mutation of Puritanism has become the dominant ideology in much of Europe and North America, the Germans take the cake for pathological piety. Not that long ago the fashionable evil de jour was the United States, and anti-American hate mongering in the German media reached levels that would make your toes curl. In the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the following Bush administrations it was often difficult to find anything about Germany on the home pages of popular German news magazines like Der Spiegel because the available space was taken up by furious rants against the United States for the latest failures to live up to German standards of virtue. Eventually the anti-American jihad choked on its own excess, and other scapegoats were found. Clearly, however, German puritanism is still alive and well. An amusing example just turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline, “Merkel adviser lashes Abbott’s ‘suicide strategy’ on coal.” The advisor in question was one Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chancellor Merkel’s lead climate advisor. A picture of him posing as the apotheosis of smugness accompanies the article, according to which he,
…attacked Australia’s complacency on global warming and described the Abbott government’s championing of the coal industry as an economic “suicide strategy”.
Alas, we learn that Schellnhuber’s anathemas also fell on our neighbor to the north. The SMH quotes him as saying,
Similar to Canada, Australia for the time being is not part of the international community which is cooperating to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions.
Tears run down our cheeks as Schellnhuber describes Australia’s fall from grace:
…it had been disappointing to see Australia’s retreat on climate policy after it became “the darling of the world” when Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007.
As readers who were around at the time may recall, the Kyoto Protocol conformed perfectly to German standards of “fairness.” It would have required states like The United States and Canada to meet exactly the same percentage reduction in emissions from the base year 1990 as the countries in the European Union, in spite of the fact that their economies had expanded at a faster rate than most of Europe’s during the period, they did not enjoy the same access to cheap, clean-burning natural gas as the Europeans in those pre-fracking days, and, “fairest” of all, they weren’t the beneficiaries of massive emission reductions from the closing of obsolete east European factories following the demise of Communism. In other words, it was “fair” for the US and Canada to shed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in order to meet grossly disproportionate emissions standards while Germany and the rest of the Europeans cheered from the sidelines.
What is one to think of this latest instance of ostentatious German piety? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. For one thing, the apparent concern about climate change in Germany is about 99% moralistic posing and 1% real. Solzhenitsyn used a word in The First Circle that describes the phenomenon very well; sharashka. Basically, it’s a lie so big that even those telling it eventually begin to believe it. The German decision to shut down their nuclear power plants demonstrated quite clearly that they’re not serious about fighting global warming. Base load sources of energy are needed for when renewables are unavailable because the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Practical alternatives for filling in the gaps include nuclear and fossil fuel. Germany has rejected the former and chosen one of the dirtiest forms of the latter; coal-fired plants using her own sources of lignite. She plans to build no less than 26 of them in the coming years!
It’s stunning, really. These plants will pump millions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that wouldn’t have been there if Germany had kept her nuclear plants on line. Not only that, they represent a far greater radioactive danger than nuclear plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium. The extent of German chutzpah is further demonstrated by a glance at recent emission numbers. Germany is now the worst polluter in the EU. Her CO2 emissions have risen substantially lately, due mainly to those new lignite plants beginning to come on line. Coal-generated energy in Germany is now around 50% of the mix, the highest it’s been since 1990. Even as the German government shook its collective head at the sinful Australians, telling them to mend their evil ways or bear the guilt for wars and revolution, not to mention the bleaching of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, her own CO2 emission rose 1.5% in 2013 over the previous year, while Australia’s fell by 0.8% in the same period!
In a word, dear reader, for the German “Greens,” the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.
Posted on March 21st, 2014 2 comments
The deadline to develop a new design of nuclear power plant has been brought forward by 15 years as the central government tries to reduce the nation’s reliance on smog-producing coal-fired power stations. A team of scientists in Shanghai had originally been given 25 years to try to develop the world’s first nuclear plant using the radioactive element thorium as fuel rather than uranium, but they have now been told they have 10, the researchers said.
I have to admit, I feel a little envious when I read things like that. The Chinese government is showing exactly the kind of leadership that’s necessary to guide the development of nuclear power along rational channels, and it’s a style of leadership of which our own government no longer seems capable.
What do I mean by “rational channels?” Among other things, I mean acting as a responsible steward of our nuclear resources, instead of blindly wasting them , as we are doing now. How are we wasting them? By simply throwing away the lion’s share of the energy content of every pound of uranium we mine.
Contrary to the Morning Post article, thorium is not a nuclear fuel. The only naturally occurring nuclear fuel is uranium 235 (U235). It is the only naturally occurring isotope that can be used directly to fuel a nuclear reactor. It makes up only a tiny share – about 0.7% – of mined uranium. The other 99.3% is mostly uranium 238 (U238). What’s the difference? When a neutron happens along and hits the nucleus of an atom of U235, it usually fissions. When a neutron happens along and hits the nucleus of an atom of U238, unless its going very fast, it commonly just gets absorbed. There’s more to the story than that, though. When it gets absorbed, the result is an atom of U239, which eventually decays to an isotope of plutonium – plutonium 239 (Pu239). Like U235, Pu239 actually is a nuclear fuel. When a neutron hits its nucleus, it too will usually fission. The term “fissile” is used to describe such isotopes.
In other words, while only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium can be used directly to produce energy, the rest could potentially be transmuted into Pu239 and burned as well. All that’s necessary for this to happen is to supply enough extra neutrons to convert the U238. As it happens, that’s quite possible, using so-called breeder reactors. And that’s where thorium comes in. Like U238, the naturally occurring isotope thorium 232 (Th232) absorbs neutrons, yielding the isotope Th233, which eventually decays to U233, which is also fissile. In other words, useful fuel can be “bred” from Th232 just as it can from U238. Thorium is about three times as abundant as uranium, and China happens to have large reserves of the element. According to current estimates, reserves in the U.S. are much larger, and India’s are the biggest on earth.
What actually happens in almost all of our currently operational nuclear reactors is a bit different. They just burn up that 0.7% of U235 in naturally occurring uranium, and a fraction of the Pu239 that gets bred in the process, and then throw what’s left away. “What’s left” includes large amounts of U238 and various isotopes of plutonium as well as a brew of highly radioactive reaction products left over from the split atoms of uranium and plutonium. Perhaps worst of all, “what’s left” also includes transuranic actinides such as americium and curium as well as plutonium. These can remain highly radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years, and account for much of the long-term radioactive hazard of spent nuclear fuel. As it happens, these actinides, as well as some of the more dangerous and long lived fission products, could potentially be destroyed during the normal operation of just the sort of molten salt reactors the crash Chinese program seeks to develop. As a result, the residual radioactivity from operating such a plant for, say, 40 years, could potentially be less than that of the original uranium ore after a few hundreds of years instead of many thousands. The radioactive hazard of such plants would actually be much less than that of burning coal, because coal contains small amounts of both uranium and thorium. Coal plants spew tons of these radioactive elements, potentially deadly if inhaled, into the atmosphere every year.
Why on earth are we blindly wasting our potential nuclear energy resources in such a dangerous fashion? Because it’s profitable. For the time being, at least, uranium is still cheap. Breeder reactors would be more expensive to build than current generation light water reactors (LWRs). To even start one, you’d have to spend about a decade, give or take, negotiating the highly costly and byzantine Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process. You could count on years of even more costly litigation after that. No reprocessing is necessary in LWRs. Just quick and dirty storage of the highly radioactive leftovers, leaving them to future generations to deal with. You can’t blame the power companies. They’re in the business to make a profit, and can’t continue to operate otherwise. In other words, to develop nuclear power rationally, you need something else in the mix – government leadership.
We lack that leadership. Apparently the Chinese don’t.
Posted on March 16th, 2014 2 comments
Secretary of State John Kerry appeared quite concerned about global warming during a recent visit to Indonesia, telling students,
The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the worlds most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.
A bit later, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrat senators pulled an all-night talkathon to sound the climate change alarm. According to Reid, climate change is “the worst problem facing the world today.” All this left reporter Susan Davis at USA Today scratching her head:
The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year.
As noted at Hot Air, the talkathon and Kerry’s bloviations were nothing but PR stunts:
In other words, this is nothing but a stunt — and transparently so. Senate Democrats control all of the Senate committees, and what comes to the Senate floor. Boxer herself is the chair of the committee on environmental affairs, and could push through legislation any time she wants to the floor.
In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to environmental activism. The pose is everything, and the reality is nothing. The reality is that Kerry, Reid, and the rest are transparently indifferent to the problem of climate change, except as it serves them as a political tool. If they really cared about it, they would have put a stop to illegal immigration long ago. The carbon foot print per capita of the United States is four times that of Mexico, and the ratio is much greater for most of the other countries of origin. If they really cared, they would put a stop to Nuclear Regulatory Commission stonewalling of innovative nuclear plant designs, not to mention grossly excessive litigation hurdles for plant construction. If they really cared, they would get behind the shale-energy revolution which has cut 300 million tons of US greenhouse gas emissions by replacing heavily polluting coal with natural gas, a contribution greater than that of all the worlds solar and wind power installations combined. In other words, they don’t care.
It’s sad, because climate change actually is a potentially serious problem. Kerry is just blowing hot air himself when he makes statements like,
We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.
The idea that someone like Kerry could distinguish “shoddy scientists” from “scientific fact” when it comes to climate change is beyond ludicrous. What qualifies him to even make such a statement? Certainly not the faintest understanding of current climate models. The most powerful computers on earth couldn’t even come close to achieving a deterministic solution of the problem. It involves billions of degrees of freedom in atmospheric and ocean conditions, and the necessary initial conditions are mostly either unknown or of limited accuracy. The only way we can even begin to address the problem is with serious (and potentially inaccurate) data interpolation, and probabilistic computer models, the equivalent of “throwing dice” on a vast scale to see which numbers come up. The statistical noise alone in such models renders it impossible to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change, but only a range of possible outcomes. In other words, Kerry’s crude “alarmism” is an easy mark for the climate “denialism” on the other end of the ideological spectrum. That’s too bad, because denying that any problem exists is just as bad as demagoguing it.
We may not be able to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change. We do know, however, that solar radiation passing through a simplified model of the atmosphere and striking an “average” patch of the earth’s surface will raise the temperature of that atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of greenhouse gases. The best computer models we have are not perfect, but they’re not useless either, and they predict that significant warming will occur over the coming decades. In other words, we can’t speak of “facts” or certainty here, but we can say that there is a substantial risk that significant human-induced climate change will occur. The effects might be benign, outweighed by the same factors that have driven variations in the earth’s climate throughout its history. They might also be disastrous. Given that earth is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it seems foolhardy to rock the boat.
Under the circumstances, Kerry, Reid, and the rest might want to think twice about the value of crying “wolf” to score cheap political points, when it’s clear that they have no intention of seriously addressing the problem. Particularly at the end of a 15 year pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, the result, already much in evidence, will be an increase in cynicism and skepticism that the problem is real. The resulting reluctance to sacrifice other priorities to address it may come back to haunt the alarmists if, as the boy in the story discovered, the “wolf” turns out to be real.
What to do? Some of the most effective solutions are precisely what the alarmists who bray the loudest don’t want to do. End significant immigration to countries with the most emissions per capita, for one. Lead in the introduction and adoption of more efficient and safer nuclear technologies and the expansion of nuclear capacity instead of blocking it for another. Instead, the wildly misnomered “Greens” in Germany are shutting down the nuclear plants in that country, with the entirely predictable result that Germany is currently planning to build 26 new, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plants to replace them. Divert heavy subsidies for existing solar and wind technologies to investment in green technology research and development. As those famously “green” Germans discovered once again, taxing the poor to finance the solar energy hobbies of the rich in a cloudy country whose capital lies above the 52nd parallel of latitude is a dubious proposition. The cost of electricity there after years of massive subsidies to solar and a nuclear shutdown is now twice as high as in heavily nuclear France. As noted in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the burden of these skyrocketing costs is falling disproportionately on the backs of those least able to afford them.
Beyond that, we might want to get serious about finding another habitable planet, and developing the technology to get there. We’ve been doing a lot of rocking the boat lately. It would behoove us to have an alternative in case it eventually tips over, and the sooner the better.
Posted on February 23rd, 2014 No comments
There are lots of great ideas out there for improving the way we do nuclear power. For instance, Transatomic Power recently proposed a novel type of molten salt reactor (MSR). The Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Industry Alliance, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, has chosen a high temperature gas reactor (HTGR) as its reactor of the future candidate. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are all the rage, and a plethora of designs have been proposed. Unlike the others, Terrapower’s traveling wave reactor (TWR), which is backed by Bill Gates, actually has a fighting chance to be built in the foreseeable future – in China. With the possible exception of SMR’s, which have strong military support, the chances of any of them being built in the United States in the foreseeable future are slim. Government, the courts, and a nightmarish regulatory process stand in the way as an almost insuperable barrier.
It wasn’t always this way. A lot of today’s “novel” concepts are based on ideas that were proposed many decades ago. We know they work, because demonstration reactors were built to try them out. More than a dozen were built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. No less than 53 were built at Idaho National Laboratory! Virtually all of them were completed more than half a century ago. There are few historical precedents that can match the sudden collapse from the vitality of those early years to the lethargy and malaise prevailing in the nuclear industry today. It’s sad, really, because the nuclear plants that actually are on line and/or under construction are artifacts of a grossly wasteful, potentially dangerous, and obsolete technology.
The light water reactors (LWRs) currently producing energy in this country use only a tiny fraction of the energy available in their uranium fuel, producing dangerous transuranic actinides that can remain highly radioactive for millennia in the process. Many of the new designs are capable of extracting dozens of times more energy from a given quantity of fuel than LWRs. Molten salt reactors would operate far more efficiently, could not melt down, and would consume dangerous actinides in the process, leaving such a small quantity of waste after several decades of operation that it would be less radioactive than the original ore used to fuel the reactor after a few hundred years rather than many millennia. Besides also being immune to meltdown, HTGRs, because of their much higher operating temperatures, could enable such things as highly efficient electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen fuel and greatly improved extraction techniques for oil and natural gas from shale and sand. Why, then, aren’t we building these improved designs?
It’s highly unlikely that the necessary initiative will come from industry. Why would they care? They’re in the business to make a profit, and LWRs can be built and operated more cheaply than the alternatives. Why should they worry about efficiency? There’s plenty of cheap uranium around, and it’s unlikely there will be major shortages for decades to come. Ask any industry spokesman, and he’ll assure you that transuranic radioactive waste and the potential proliferation issues due to the plutonium content of spent LWR fuel are mere red herrings. I’m not so sure.
In other words, strong government leadership would be needed to turn things around. Unfortunately, that commodity is in short supply. The current reality is that government is a highly effective deterrent to new reactor technology. Take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for example. Read Kafka’s The Trial and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how it operates. So you want to license a new reactor design, do you? Well, most of the current regulations apply specifically to LWRs, so you’ll have to give them time to come up with new ones. Then you’ll need to spend at least a decade and millions of dollars explaining your new technology to the NRC bureaucrats. Then you can expect an endless stream of requests for additional information, analysis of all the threat and failure scenarios they can dream up, etc., which will likely take a good number of additional years. After all, they have to justify their existence, don’t they? If you ever manage to get past the NRC, the court system will take things up where they left off.
What to do? I don’t know. It really doesn’t upset me when reactors built with legacy technology are pulled off line, and replaced with fossil fueled plants. They just waste most of their fuel, throwing away energy that future generations might sorely miss once they’ve finally burned through all the coal and oil on the planet. Maybe the best thing to do would be to just buy up all the available uranium around and wait. We might also stop the incredibly block-headed practice of converting all of our “depleted” uranium into ammunition. The Lone Ranger’s silver bullets were cheap by comparison. Future generations are likely to wonder what on earth we were thinking.
Things were a lot better in the “apathetic” 50’s, but the novelist Thomas Wolfe had it right. You can’t go home again.
Posted on February 16th, 2014 5 comments
John Derbyshire’s reaction to the BBC documentary, “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese,” about Japan’s “demographic catastrophe” is probably somewhat different from what the producers had in mind. In short, he considers it a feature, not a bug. In fact, he thinks “The 21st Century Might Belong to Japan” because they are biting the demographic bullet now.
The documentary follows reporter Anita Rani, a Briton of Indian descent, as she leads us through a series of nightmares in the demographic basket case that is modern Japan. There is Yubari, a coal-mining town in the north, that once teamed with children, but whose maternity ward has been converted to a dusty storeroom. There are a pair of late-30’s geeks whose main love interests, schoolgirls aged 15 and 17, reside in the virtual world of a Nintendo box. There is a prison that is rapidly becoming a geriatric ward. And finally we cut to the chase. In a conversation with American-born economist Kathy Matsui, Rani observes sagely, ““Immigration. Surely that’s the solution that’s staring them in the face.” Matsui agrees, noting the extreme indebtedness of Japan, its stagnant economy, the increasingly unbearable cost of caring for a rapidly aging population without a steady supply of young taxpayers to milk, etc., etc. However, she notes, “There is an order of steps that need to occur” for mass immigration to become acceptable in a traditional society like Japan. Right, just like the order of steps that take you to the top of a gallows.
According to Derbyshire, “Mass immigration at best postpones the day of reckoning for a few years,” and by biting the bullet now, Japan may, “…speed off ahead of us into some new socio-economic order suited to low population levels and better age ratios, as we struggle with the transition they have already mastered.” Regardless of how she masters her economic problems, Japan is fortunate indeed to have a “traditional” society that discourages immigration. As Jayman put it in a recent tweet, “we should be so lucky” as to have a similar problem. I can but hope that Japan never becomes so suicidal as to take the “order of steps” to mass immigration.
The peddlers of the “demographic catastrophe” scare stories would have us believe that there can be nothing worse than stagnant or declining economies. Actually, there is something worse; failure to survive. You don’t have to go back too many years to come to a time when this was actually a serious concern for Japan. Just read some of the books and magazines about her published in the 30’s when her population was half what it is today. However, with the agricultural technology available at the time, it appeared that there was no way she could continue to feed her population if it grew much beyond that. We now know how she attempted to solve the problem, and the results of that attempt. Now we are supposed to be shaking in our boots if her population returns to that level at the turn of the next century.
Apparently we are to believe that such unfortunate byproducts of continuous population growth are all behind us now. Search the Internet and you can find articles claiming that the planet can easily accommodate 10, 50, or even 100 billion people. As a wag on the nightly news once put it, “maybe so, but who wants to eat standing up?” What’s amazing is that this stuff is being eagerly swallowed on both the right and the left. The Beeb, of course, is reliably leftist, like most of the rest of the western European media, and unlimited immigration is one of the boards that makes up the ideological box that the left lives in these days. It’s as if the denizens of that box are a bunch of lemmings who can’t wait to commit demographic suicide, or serve as promoters for the next wave of civil wars.
Consider, for example, the case of Switzerland, whose voters recently decided to apply some reasonable limits to immigration from the rest of the EU. The German papers and news websites, which I happen to follow, became positively hysterical. I haven’t seen much to compare with it since the most recent eruption of anti-American hate in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Among other things, the evil Swiss were supposed to be hicks from the back woods, consumed by greed. Their vibrant economy was built with the wealth accumulated by the Nazis and assorted other dictators, etc. It was a classic example of the response of an ingroup to perceived attack by an outgroup.
Oddly enough, the right is playing a similar tune. Anyone who thinks the planet might be better off with a smaller population must be “anti-Life.” I have personally heard a retired Army 4-star general defend unlimited immigration, supposedly because it’s necessary to support a strong economy and, with it, a powerful military. I’m of a different opinion. I’d rather not rock the boat.
Global warming may or may not be a reality. We may or may not run out of clean water. We may or may not be able to produce enough food to feed the planet’s increasing population. We may or may not run out of affordable energy in the next few hundred years. It seems to me the pertinent question is, “Why take chances?”
Does that mean that the readers of this little blog should refrain from having as many children as possible? Of course not! Heaven forefend, gentle readers, that any of you should ever become defective biological units. However, Mother Nature, in her wisdom, enabled us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different rules and versions of morality applying to each. To paraphrase General Patton, the idea isn’t to commit genetic suicide yourself. The idea is to get the other poor, dumb bastard to commit genetic suicide. The result will be a world with a manageable population where you will be able to pursue your own version of “human flourishing” in peace. As for Japan, I don’t doubt that she is still producing men (and women) whose love interests don’t reside in Nintendo boxes. In time, their children, and their children’s children, will inherit the islands. When they do, the population demographics will likely take a turn for the better.
Of course, I’m supplying you with a “should” here, and as my readers know, I don’t admit the existence of objective “shoulds.” Take it with a grain of salt, if you like. It certainly won’t bother me. I’ve made my reasons for preferring genetic survival to a life in which I make a “meaningful contribution” to the rest of mankind, and then croak, clear enough in earlier posts. My point is, if you happen to share this whim, this preference for survival with me, don’t be concerned the next time you see some feminist harridan railing about the evils of having children. Why on earth would you ever attempt to persuade her she’s wrong? The best response is to smile, get a room, and get busy.
UPDATE: More on the Derb’s article over at Occam’s Razor
Posted on October 19th, 2013 No comments
Who says there’s no such thing as German humor? Take, for example, some of the comments left by Teutonic wags after an article about the recent fusion “breakthrough” reported by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on the National Ignition Facility (NIF). One of the first was left by one of Germany’s famous “Greens,” who was worried about the long term effects of fusion energy. Very long term. Here’s what he had to say:
So nuclear fusion is green energy, is it? The opposite is true. Nuclear fusion is the form of energy that guarantees that any form of Green will be forever out of the question. In comparison, Chernobyl is a short-lived joke! Why? Have you ever actually considered what will be “burned” with fusion energy? Hydrogen, one of the two components of water, (and a material without which life is simply impossible)! Nuclear fusion? I can already see the wars over water coming. And, by the way, the process is irreversible. Once hydrogen is fused, it’s gone forever. Nothing and no one will ever be able to make water out of it ever again!
I’m not kidding! The guy was dead serious. Of course, this drew a multitude of comments from typical German Besserwisser (better knowers), such as, “If you don’t have a clue, you should shut your trap.” However, some of the other commenters were more light-hearted. for example,
No, no, no. What eu-fan (the first commenter) doesn’t seem to understand is that this should be seen as a measure against the rise in sea level that will result from global warming. Less hydrogen -> less water -> reduced sea level -> everything will be OK.
Another hopeful commenter adds,
…if it ever actually does succeed, this green fusion, can we have our old-fashioned light bulbs back?
Noting that the fusion of hydrogen produces helium, another commenter chimes in,
So, in other words, if a fusion reactor blows up, the result will be a global bird cage: The helium released will make us all talk like Mickey Mouse!
In all seriousness, the article in Der Spiegel about the “breakthrough” wasn’t at all bad. The author actually bothered to ask a local fusion expert, Sibylle Günter, Scientific Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, about Livermore’s “breakthrough.” She replied,
The success of our colleagues (at Livermore) is remarkable, and I don’t want to belittle it. However, when one speaks of a “breakeven point” in the classical sense, in which the fusion energy out equals the total energy in, they still have a long way to go.
That, of course, is entirely true. The only way one can speak of a “breakthough” in the recent NIF experiments is by dumbing down the accepted definition of “ignition” from “fusion energy out equals laser energy in” to “fusion energy out equals energy absorbed by the target,” a much lower amount. That didn’t deter many writers of English-language reports, who couldn’t be troubled to fact check Livermore’s claims with the likes of Dr. Günter. In some cases the level of fusion wowserism was extreme. For example, according to the account at Yahoo News,
After fifty years of research, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, have made a breakthrough in harnessing and controlling fusion.
According to the BBC, NIF conducted an experiment where the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction was more than the amount of energy being absorbed by it. This process is known as “ignition” and is the first time it has successfully been done anywhere in the world.
I’m afraid not. The definition of “ignition” that has been explicitly accepted by scientists at Livermore is “fusion energy out equals laser energy in.” That definition puts them on a level playing field with their magnetic fusion competitors. It’s hardly out of the question that the NIF will reach that goal, but it isn’t there yet. Not by a long shot.
Posted on October 10th, 2013 No comments
It has always seemed plausible to me that some clever scientist(s) might find a shortcut to fusion that would finally usher in the age of fusion energy, rendering the two “mainstream” approaches, inertial confinement fusion (ICF) and magnetic fusion, obsolete in the process. It would be nice if it happened sooner rather than later, if only to put a stop to the ITER madness. For those unfamiliar with the field, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is a gigantic, hopeless, and incredibly expensive white elephant and welfare project for fusion scientists currently being built in France. In terms of pure, unabashed wastefulness, think of it as a clone of the International Space Station. It has always been peddled as a future source of inexhaustible energy. Trust me, nothing like ITER will ever be economically competitive with alternative energy sources. Forget all your platitudes about naysayers and “they said it couldn’t be done.” If you don’t believe me, leave a note to your descendants to fact check me 200 years from now. They can write a gloating refutation to my blog if I’m wrong, but I doubt that it will be necessary.
In any case, candidates for the hoped for end run around magnetic and ICF keep turning up, all decked out in the appropriate hype. So far, at least, none of them has ever panned out. Enter two stage laser fusion, the latest pretender, introduced over at NextBigFuture with the assurance that it can achieve “10x higher fusion output than using the laser directly and thousands of times better output than hitting a solid target with a laser.” Not only that, but it actually achieved the fusion of boron and normal hydrogen nuclei, which produces only stable helium atoms. That’s much harder to achieve than the usual deuterium-tritium fusion between two heavy isotopes of hydrogen, one of which, tritium, is radioactive and found only in tiny traces in nature. That means it wouldn’t be necessary to breed tritium from the fusion reactions just to keep them going, one of the reasons that ITER will never be practical.
Well, I’d love to believe this is finally the ONE, but I’m not so sure. The paper describing the results NBF refers to was published by the journal Nature Communications. Even if you don’t subscribe, you can click on the figures in the abstract and get the gist of what’s going on. In the first place, one of the lasers has to accelerate protons to high enough energies to overcome the Coulomb repulsion of the stripped (of electrons) boron nuclei produced by the other laser. Such laser particle accelerators are certainly practical, but they only work at extremely high power levels. In other words, they require what’s known in the business as petawatt lasers, capable of achieving powers in excess of a quadrillion (10 to the 15th power) watts. Power comes in units of energy per unit time, and such lasers generally reach the petawatt threshold by producing a lot of energy in a very, very short time. Often, we’re talking picoseconds (trillionths of a second).
Now, you can do really, really cool things with petawatt lasers, such as pulling electron positron pairs right out of the vacuum. However, their practicality as drivers for fusion power plants, at least in their current incarnation, is virtually nil. The few currently available, for example, at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Nevada at Reno, etc., are glass lasers. There’s no way they could achieve the “rep rates” (shot frequency) necessary for useful energy generation. Achieving lots of fusions, but only for a few picoseconds, isn’t going to solve the world’s energy problems.
As it happens, conventional accelerators can also be used for fusion. As a matter of fact, it’s a common way of generating neutrons for such purposes as neutron radiography. Unfortunately, none of the many fancy accelerator-driven schemes for producing energy that people have come up with over the years has ever worked. There’s a good physical reason for that. Instead of using their energy to overcome the Coulomb repulsion of other nuclei (like charges repel, and atomic nuclei are all positively charged), and fuse with them, the accelerated particles prefer to uselessly dump that energy into the electrons surrounding those nuclei. As a result, it has always taken more energy to drive the accelerators than could be generated in the fusion reactions. That’s where the “clever” part of this scheme comes in. In theory, at least, all those pesky electrons are gone, swept away by the second laser. However, that, too, is an energy drain. So the question becomes, can both lasers be run efficiently enough and with high enough rep rates and with enough energy output to strip enough boron atoms to get enough of energy out to be worth bothering about, in amounts greater than that needed to drive the lasers? I don’t think so. Still, it was a very cool experiment.
Posted on May 13th, 2013 2 comments
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago. The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism. In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc. For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps. Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.
Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years. We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved. Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism. The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam. Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.
Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition. Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore. If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting. The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them. However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore. What is nearest and dearest? According to NRO,
The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.
I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory. As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic. What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon. These people are exploiters, not exploitees. Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education. Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students. They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.
Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.” Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed. At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful. The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class. Where is this leading? How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery? I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
The pundits at NRO should relax. If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.
And what of the academic exploiters? I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.” However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.” On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”