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  • The Radioactive Danger of Natural Gas

    Posted on December 5th, 2010 Helian No comments

    All radioactive dangers aren’t created equal, or at least they aren’t in terms of the stories the media reports and those it ignores. For example, the recent tritium gas leak at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant was a major news story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tritium is radioactive and carcinogenic, and the amount leaked through two cracked underground pipes represented a potentially serious public health hazard. Fortunately, the sources of the leaking gas were found before the radioactive gas could contaminate the local drinking water. However, there are other sources of radioactive danger. They are potentially a great deal more dangerous than the leaks at Vermont Yankee, but not as sensational, because they’re not associated with the nuclear boogeyman. As a result they don’t lend themselves to the striking of heroic poses by those who have appointed themselves our environmental saviors, and are therefore ignored.

    A case in point is the potential radioactive hazard of drilling for natural gas. It’s been known for more than a year that wastewater from gas drilling in New York’s Marcellus shale (hattip Atomic Insights) has been coming up laced with something more dangerous than organic hydrocarbons; namely, radium. According to ProPublica,

    The information comes from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.

    There happens to be a difference between radium and tritium in the type of radiation they emit. Both are dangerous, but tritium emits a relatively low energy (average 5.7 thousand electron volts, or keV) electron, or beta particle. When radium decays, however, it emits a much heavier helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons), or alpha particle, carrying nearly a thousand times more energy (4.871 million electron volts, or MeV). The good news is that alpha particles have a much shorter range. They can’t penetrate your skin. The bad news is that, once they get in the body (for example, if you drink radium-laced water) that short range becomes a liability. All the alpha particle’s energy is again dumped in a very short distance, but not in dead skin tissue.  Instead, it causes massive damage to living cells. 

    Radium is problematic for another reason.  It is chemically similar to calcium, and is therefore a “bone seeker,” where it accumulates over time.  What happens next was experienced by the “radium girls,” young women hired to paint a “glow-in-the-dark” radium compound on watch dials over a period of about ten years starting in 1917. Many of them later died of various forms of cancer.  As I’ve pointed out earlier on this blog, tons of uranium and thorium, also emitters of powerful alpha particles, are released directly into the atmosphere every year from the burning of coal.

    I point these things out, not because I’m fundamentally opposed to the use of gas, coal, or any other energy source.  It is highly unlikely that any of the ones commonly in use today are anywhere near as hazardous as a lack of electric power would be. As noted by Carl from Chicago at Chicago Boyz, who knows whereof he speaks, we may find that out to our cost in the not-to-distant future if shortsighted policies of blocking the building of all new generating capacity continue unchanged.  Rather, I point them out because of the basic truth that there is no way to produce the energy we need that is environmentally benign.  That basic truth applies to solar, wind, and other “alternative”  energy sources just as it does to coal, nuclear and gas.  It would be well if the media provided us with the information we need to make rational choices, rather than limiting itself to providing environmentalist poseurs with a handy source of propaganda.

  • Liveblogging Germany’s Nuclear Ninnies

    Posted on November 7th, 2010 Helian 5 comments

    As I write this, Der Spiegel is liveblogging the progress of spent nuclear fuel containers from the French reprocessing plant at La Hague to the German waste storage facility at Gorleben.  Germany’s nuclear ninnies have turned the event into low farce.  Activists have planned events all along the way to satisfy the need of even the most narcissistic of the country’s environmental saviors to strike heroic and pious poses, and ostentatious public piety is what Germany’s “environmental” movement is all about.  No matter that the only things these zealots will really accomplish if they succeed is to keep dirty coal plants on line to take the place of the reactors they shut down.  Other than pumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, the particulates and radioactive ash from those coal plants will certainly result in the needless deaths of hundreds of their countrymen.  That will be the reality of ending nuclear power in Germany, but reality means nothing to these people.  They are not in the street to save the environment.  They are in the street to pose as saviors of the environment.  It’s so, so satisfying to ride heroically forth against evil environmental dragons, taking care, of course, to make sure that as many of your fellow citizens as possible can see you in your shining armor, and nuclear energy makes such a perfect evil dragon.  No matter that the evil is imaginary.  They just can’t do without such a wonderful evil dragon.  To take it away would be like taking drugs away from an addict.  So the fake evil dragon must live on, even if it means feeding the real one.  Some examples from Spiegel’s blog of how Germany’s “saviors” are getting their rocks off:

    9:15 The 1000 to 1500 activists from Camp Metzingen are attempting to reach the rail line. It’s unclear at the moment whether they’ve reached the lines. The first wave of demonstrators is lying on the ground with streaming eyes. Apparently the police used tear gas to keep them from the rails. Photographers were rudely turned away. (How noble! How heroic!)

    9:35 Water cannons have been brought up along the rail line and are being used against those who are trying to damage the rail bed.

    10:45 (Peaceful) Demonstrators have doused an armored police vehicle with tar and set it on fire.

    1:02 PM “We don’t want violence (!!) but rather a debate (yeah, right) about ending nuclear power, and appeal to the police to renounce the use of force,” said Wolfgang Emke, a spokesman for a citizen’s group from Luchow-Dannenberg.

    …and so the sorry charade goes on.  People like this will never listen to reason, because it would require them to give up the illusion that they are noble saviors of mankind.  Outside of that illusion, many of them have no life.  The evil dragon must remain evil, or the whole, rotten facade that supports their sense of self-worth will collapse.  That’s the reality of the “environmental” movement, not just in Germany, but in any other country one could name.  They’re just one more manifestation of what H. L. Mencken used to call the “Uplift.”   Those who are being asked to make real sacrifices to humor these people are getting increasingly tired of playing along.  They are starting to strike back with an ideological narrative of their own, and don’t mind being called names by their enemies.  They have heard the zealots on the other side yell “wolf” too many times.  The problem is that, with six billion plus of us on the planet already, as our population relentlessly increases, the real wolf (or more likely, wolves) will surely come.  When they do, all the heroic posing in the world won’t stop them.

  • Update from Germany

    Posted on October 28th, 2010 Helian 2 comments

    What is it about Germans?  Somehow I get the feeling that many of them would still complain if they were hung with a new rope.  The German economy is booming.  Unemployment has never been lower since 1992.  There are currently over 400,000 unfilled job openings in the country, and a shortage of workers, not jobs.  According to recent projections, the number of unemployed will drop from just under 3 million now to about 2 million in 2012.  The economy is currently expanding at a robust 3.4% per year, and Germany leads western industrialized countries in the speed of its recovery from the recession.  In spite of it all, the country isn’t exactly “dizzy with success.”  It seems that the Germans, or at least the German media, can see a dark cloud behind every silver lining. 

    The news magazine Focus, for example, agonizes about the “Dangerous Attraction of Prosperity,” in an article warning about increased government debt, in spite of tax receipts in excess of the rosiest projections, and a deficit in the noise compared to that of the United States.   In another article entitled “Five Risks to Prosperity,” we learn that, “A cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the good prognoses.  Experts don’t trust the good signals.”

    Der Spiegel, too, focuses on the negative.  In an article entitled, “Capitol City of the Unemployed,”  it describes the situation in the city of Demmin, passing on the lugubrious news that “Nowhere is unemployment so high as in the district in the northwest of the republic…  Those who can leave for the West, and those who stay experience the daily deterioration.”  The “pulse” of the city is “beating ever more slowly.”  Another Spiegel article highlights the visit of none other than our own Paul Krugman.  Under the headline “Crisis Oracle Krugman Fulminates against the Germans,” the Nobel laureate is quoted warning the Germans that “the crisis isn’t close to over.”  He condemns all the talk about a recovery, suggests that demand for German exports will soon collapse, and internal consumption is too low, and hints darkly about renewed pressure on the Euro.

    Not to be outdone, the magazine Stern begins an article about the unexpectedly robust German economic expansion reflected in the latest figures with the counterintuitive headline, “The Recovery Weakens,” because projected growth in 2011 is somewhat less.   In a word, to say that the Germans aren’t cocky about their recovery is an understatement.

    Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder:  It’s all about me

    In spite of all that, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder knows a good thing when he sees it.  In keeping with the old saying, “Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan,“ he is claiming that he should be credited with the current recovery, because “it’s a result of his policies.“  In an interview for a local newspaper, he suggests that, “(Chancellor) Angela Merkel should be thankful to him for his reforms.“  No doubt tears of gratitude are falling down her cheeks.  One can understand his glee, given the less happy fate of George W. Bush, who continues in the role of scapegoat of choice for all the failings of the Obama administration.

     German Greenpeace:  Fighting Global Warming with Coal

    Meanwhile, even as German coal-fired power plants belch millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and more are planned in the immediate future, German activists posing as “environmentalists” have occupied the roof of the headquarters of the center-right Christian Democrat party in what Der Spiegel calls a “spectacular action” to protest the party’s support for nuclear power.  Never mind that coal represents a significantly greater radioactive hazard than nuclear power, without even taking into account the tens of thousands that die each year from breathing the particulates from coal-fired plants, or the fact that such plants contribute mightily to global warming, which these same “environmentalists” have claimed is the number one threat facing the planet.  So powerful is the craving of these activists to strike pious poses as noble saviors of humanity that they’re incapable of even making the connection.  In their fevered imaginations, the nuclear plants they propose to shut down will all be replaced by non-polluting (and non-existent) “green” energy sources.  It’s very simple, really.  There are still coal plants in Germany, and there will continue to be coal plants in Germany into the indefinite future.  Each nuclear plant that is built or remains in operation can replace the need for a coal plant of comparable size.  Therefore, what the German “environmentalists” are really doing by opposing nuclear is promoting the continued burning of coal.  As usual,  the pose is everything and the reality is nothing.

  • “Heatballs”: German Technology Triumphs Again

    Posted on October 18th, 2010 Helian No comments

    According to Reuters (hattip Tim Blair), German scientists have discovered a new home heating technology that leverages the tendency of charged particles (in this case electrons) to transfer energy to a metal lattice when under the influence of an electromotive force. Although remarkably similar to old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, which were recently banned in the European Union, the devices can be easily distinguished therefrom by virtue of the fact that they are clearly marked “Heatball.”

    According to the website set up to market the new devices, they are the,

    Best invention since the lightbulb! …A heatball is an electrical resistance intended for heating. Heatball is action art! Heatball is resistance against regulations that are imposed without recourse to any democratic or parliamentary procedure, disenfranchising citizens.

    Noting that a portion of the purchase price of each of the devices will be contributed to a fund to save the rainforests, the blurb continues,

    Heatball is also a form of resistance against the senseless nature of measures to protect the environment. How is it possible to seriously believe that we can save the world’s climate by using energy efficient lightbulbs, while at the same time condoning the fact that the rainforests have been waiting in vain for their salvation for decades?

    Making light of the absurd notion that the devices could be misused to produce light, the site adds,

    In accordance with the instructions, the correct use of heatballs is to produce warmth. Would you use a toaster as a reading lamp? …The emission of light during the heating process is a result of the production technology. It is no reason for alarm, nor does it constitute legitimate grounds for a refund.

    In the 20th century we found ways to beat Prohibition in the USA.  May our German friends have similar success with their Heatballs in the 21st.

  • Energy Update: Nuclear Falters, Coal Advances

    Posted on October 13th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Something over a year ago, the US government announced that four companies out of 17 that had applied for over a hundred billion dollars worth of federal loan guarantees for 21 proposed nuclear reactors had made what the Wall Street Journal called its “short list.”  At the time, Carl from Chicago, who occasionally writes for ChicagoBoyz, penned an article expressing his “confusion” at the choices.  Several seemingly logical candidates had been passed over, and, of the four picked, three were underfunded and had an assortment of legal and financial issues that made them dubious choices for coming up with the kind of capital needed to fund new construction.  As it turns out, the feds should have listened to Carl.  NRG, one of the two companies he picked as “least likely to succeed,” effectively dropped out of the game some time ago.  Now, as he puts it, “the other shoe has dropped.”  The other weak sister, Constellation Energy Group, just announced it is pulling out of negotiations to build the build the Calvert Cliffs 3 reactor in Maryland.

    Rod Adams at Atomic Insights also commented on Constellation’s decision to walk.  Citing a related article in the Washington Post according to which,

    Separately, administration officials said they had approved a $1.06 billion loan guarantee for an Oregon wind farm, the world’s largest, after project developers waged a vigorous lobbying campaign to bring the year-long application process to a conclusion.

    Rod notes the gross disparity in the terms and conditions of loans offered to the two industries:

    Just in case anyone wonders why the wind farm project accepted its loan guarantee while Constellation refused, the key is in understanding the terms and conditions.

    For a project that would have produced 4,000 jobs for 4-5 years in Maryland, the companies involved were being told that they had to PAY the US government a non refundable fee of $880 MILLION dollars in order to BORROW $7.5 billion for a project where they would have to invest at least 20% of the project cost as their own equity, thus giving them at least $2.0 billion in reasons to make sure the project succeeded.

    In contrast, the wind farm, which will produce 400 jobs for a relatively short period during construction, was able to obtain a $1.06 billion dollar loan with NO CREDIT SUBSIDY COST at all. The ARRA has provided all of the money required for the credit subsidy cost for politically defined “renewable” energy via a change in section 1705 of the Energy Policy Act. In addition, section 1603 of the ARRA provides a CASH GRANT in lieu of a production tax credit of 30% of the cost of the project via a check within 6 months after the project closes. The wind project thus gets a $1.06 billion loan with no closing cost and the sponsors have no equity in the project at all since they get their 20% down payment back with a 50% kicker less than a year after the project starts.

    In a word, hype about a “nuclear renaissance” can be taken with a grain of salt, at least until the government gets its act together.  Meanwhile, the coal industry has reason to cheer.  New coal gasification plants are being built in the US even as we speak.  Among other things, they produce hydrogen, a long shot candidate as a non-polluting vehicle fuel to replace petroleum.  Ideas for getting the stuff out of coal without releasing tons of CO2 in the process remain sketchy.  Even more intriguingly, a firm is seriously looking into the possibility of building a coal liquefaction plant in Indiana.  Whether they decide the new plant is financially feasible or not, the fact that such a project has made it this far along in the planning process demonstrates how close coal has come to becoming a viable replacement for petroleum.  Given that the United States has over a quarter of the proved coal reserves in the entire world, and that those reserves are more than twice the size in terms of energy as the world’s remaining oil, that is a fact of no small significance.

  • Politicized Science: Harold Lewis Resigns from APS

    Posted on October 12th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    Harold Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written a scathing letter of resignation to the American Physical Society protesting its collusion in what he calls the global warming scam, “…the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist.”  The letter is a symptom of what happens when scientific hypothesis is conflated with ideological certainty.  There’s certainly enough of the latter to go around on both ends of the ideological spectrum.  However, the letter is overwrought and its conclusions are insupportable based on the evidence it cites. 

    That evidence includes the Climategate documents, which are ugly enough in their own right, but hardly support a blanket accusation of charlatanism against the thousands of scientists working in the field of climate science.  Lewis also cites climate scientist Michael Mann’s famous “hockey stick” graph, long the subject of finger pointing on the right.  Mann tends to be his own worst enemy, vilifying anyone who opposes him as a “pseudo-scientist,” and claiming in the pages of Scientific American, hardly a paragon of scientific disinterestedness, that they are motivated by the prospect of “petroleum dollars,” even as he surfs along on the massive wave of cash that tends to flow in the direction of anyone who confirms the received wisdom about global warming.  That said, the idea that the book Lewis cites by A. W. Montfort or anything else I’ve seen “proves” that the “hockey stick” is an illusion is simply not supported by the facts.  Numerous other researchers have confirmed the substance of Mann’s findings, citing compelling evidence that is out there for anyone who cares to look at it.  Anyone who thinks the “hockey stick” is fiction needs to lay their confirmation bias aside for a few minutes and Google the facts.

    The fact that, as in the many other instances documented by Bjorn Lomborg in his “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” environmental scientists have grossly exaggerated the level of certainty that the evidence will bear regarding the severity, effects, and potential outcomes of global warming does not warrant the conclusion, stated with equally irrational certainty on the political right, that the phenomenon doesn’t exist, or doesn’t represent a potential danger.  There are now more than 6 billion of us floating along on a fragile little spaceship that happens to be the only spaceship we have.  It would be wise to refrain from gratuitously damaging it as long as we still need it to survive.

    It would also be wise for climatologists to refrain from claiming that they are certain about future outcomes it’s impossible to be certain about.  Such predicted outcomes are based on the results of mathematical models.  No mathematical model is perfect, and that is certainly true of mathematical models designed to predict the behavior of systems as complicated as the earth’s climate, which has billions of degrees of freedom and for which we have nothing like sufficient accurate data to support deterministic conclusions.  Climate models are subject to all the weaknesses that the great systems analyst Peter Maybeck cited for mathematical models in general.  In the first place, such models are approximations, not perfect reflections of reality.  Secondly, climate is affected by disturbances which we can neither control nor model deterministically.  Finally, we have nothing close to perfect and complete data about the system we are trying to model.

    That said, it would be just as wrong to dismiss the results of climate models as totally baseless and fallacious as it is to claim deterministic certainty for their predictions.  The best ones are stochastic, or probabilistic models that account for the uncertainties cited above using systematic approaches that minimize their effects in ways that can be shown to be mathematically optimal, such as the Kalman filter.   So-called ensemble forecasts are examples of how uncertainties in initial conditions can be handled in large climate computer codes.  In such models, ensembles of initial conditions are chosen, each representing a plausible initial state of the atmosphere given our estimates of the uncertainties based on observation and analysis.  The trajectories of many such ensembles are then followed to create a projection of likely outcomes.  It often happens that many of those outcomes are grouped in close proximity to each other.  Some of the trajectories may diverge markedly from the rest, and there is no guarantee that they don’t actually represent the correct outcomes, but probability will favor the conclusion that the real outcome will fall near the most likely point.  Such models do not and cannot predict certain outcomes.  They do, however, have what computational physicists call “skill,” the ability to predict outcomes with a reasonable level of confidence that those outcomes will be correct.

    Such stochastic models are not crude and unreliable, nor can their results be dismissed with a wave of the hand.  The outcomes they predict may not come to pass, but given the potential consequences, it would be foolhardy to ignore the danger, or, as Professor Lewis has done, dismiss that danger as “pseudo-science.”  

    It may be that, given the bunker mentality of the ideologues on the left and right, it has become virtually impossible to really do something about the problem.  The rapid expansion of coal-fired generating capacity in China alone lends credence to the conclusion that we will continue to burn fossil fuels until they are finally exhausted.  Obvious solutions such as the rapid expansion of nuclear generating capacity are blocked by the very “environmentalists” who claim that global warming is the paramount environmental threat to mankind.  Under the circumstances, it would be well for governments to consider contingencies for dealing with global warming if the worst of our fears are realized.

  • Of “Eco-Fascism” and Tea Parties

    Posted on October 2nd, 2010 Helian No comments

    The 10:10 Campaign is an effort by British environmentalists to get businesses and individuals to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.  Recently the organization released (and then quickly withdrew) a remarkably self-destructive video in which 10:10 promoters murdered anyone (including children) who refused to go along by pressing a button that caused them to explode, spraying blood and gore on those around them.  In an incredibly lame apology, the producers said this was intended to be “funny.”

    Opponents of environmental activism on the right quickly seized on the incident to tar the entire movement with the same brush (for example, here, here, and here), suggesting that all environmentalists either are or sympathize with extremists whose tastes run to homicidal “humor” about blowing up their opponents.

    In a sense, the left has been hoisted on its own petard. They have been desperately casting about for “evidence” that the Tea Party Movement is “extremist,” seizing on the flimsiest incidents to “prove” that it is racist, bigoted, violent, etc. For example, when a few local activists put up a sign equating Obama with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, they immediately worked themselves into a fine lather, shouting down their anathemas on a loose organization with tens of millions of supporters as if every one of them had collaborated in putting up the sign (see, for example, here and here).  I especially liked the BBC’s “objective” report about the incident, which had the lurid headline “Tea Party fund sign linking Obama to Hitler,” along with plausible denial that they were taking sides in the form of the usual “he said, she said” stuff buried in the body of the article.  Classic!

    Conservatives have rightly objected to the left’s “extremist” propaganda narrative, noting the studied silence from those quarters when the “extremists” turn out to be provocateurs. Now, however, they are using the same tactics, implying the collective guilt of tens of millions of people who happen to disagree with them because of the ill-considered acts of a few.  It’s certainly understandable in terms of human nature, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

  • “Avatar” in Real Life: The BBC’s Uranium Fear Mongering

    Posted on September 24th, 2010 Helian No comments

    I give the movie Avatar two thumbs up. It was spectacular in 3-D, and had an entertaining plot featuring noble good guys (native Na’vi, stewards of the environment dedicated to serving the life spirit of their home, the moon Pandora) and evil bad guys (minions of a greedy corporation bent on interstellar vandalism in the search for the precious mineral, unobtainium.) As fiction, it’s great, but if this article about uranium mining in Arizona is any indication, one of the BBC’s reporters saw the movie one too many times. It’s more a reflection of the prevailing ideological narrative at the “objective” BBC than of the real world.

    The article, entitled “’Uranium Rush’ Prompts Grand Canyon Fears,” with the signature BBC quotation marks around “Uranium Rush,” is about the possible resumption of uranium mining in Arizona. It would have been more appropriate to put the quotation marks around “Grand Canyon.” According to the article, which appears beneath a lovely picture of the canyon itself,

    The Grand Canyon region in the US state of Arizona holds one of the nation’s largest concentrations of high grade uranium, the fuel for nuclear power.

    In fact, there is no imminent threat that mining for uranium or any other mineral will occur within the Grand Canyon watershed, because, as the BBC article fails to mention, the entire area was removed from mineral entry by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984.  In fact, over 55.6% of the total area of the State of Arizona is already withdrawn from mineral exploration and mining.
    The article continues,

    The US government is currently weighing the costs and benefits of mining, with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva proposing a ban on mining near the Grand Canyon.

    Again, the Beeb is playing fast and loose with the truth. The key word here is “near.” At issue is mining in the Arizona strip near the northern border of the state. The “evil corporation” is the Denison Mines Corporation of Canada, operator of the Arizona 1 mine about 45 miles southwest of the city of Fredonia. You can see exactly what is meant by “near” by starting at this satellite view of the mine location and zooming out until you see the canyon to the south. The “Na’vi” are the Native Americans in the region. According to the article,

    …Native American populations living near uranium mines fear exploration could contaminate their drinking water.

    Unsurprisingly, the article fails to mention any credible basis for this fear. In fact, as noted in this report, the uranium deposits in the area are in breccia pipes a few hundred feet below the surface and generally about 1,000 feet above the local aquifer. The deposits and the aquifer are separated by the impermeable Supai formation. Hence there is little chance of the water being contaminated. There is little danger of runoff, because the region is in a desert, and the mining property is contained in a lined pond.

    The article continues,

    On a recent trip into the mine, none of the miners wore masks, and their hands and face were caked with uranium ore. “It washes off,” miner Cody Behuden, 28, told the BBC while licking his ore-caked lips.
    Vice-president of US operations Harold Roberts said the miners were under no danger from ingesting uranium.

    The implication here, of course, is that there really is a danger from ingesting uranium, and the “evil corporation” doesn’t care. In fact, there is credible evidence that uranium miners can suffer a high incidence of lung cancer from inhaling radon gas. There is very little that demonstrates a correlation between “ingesting” the ore and cancer or any other illness. I am certainly willing to believe that conditions in the mine are dangerous if any credible evidence to that effect is forthcoming. If the BBC has something more convincing than innuendo to make the case, let’s see it. The article continues,

    Dr Lee Grier, a biologist at University of California at Riverside, said exposure to uranium can be harmful, and the Navajo Native American reservation nearby is still is grappling with contamination from previous uranium mining and milling done by other companies. Those companies now no longer exist.
    “The danger with long term exposure is that people breathe it, ingest it or it seeps through the skin,” he said. “These particles start bombarding tissues and cause wild uncontrolled cell growth like cancer.”

    In fact, the local Indians are under no danger of contamination, because the ore will be removed and taken out of state to be milled. However, let’s assume the “evil corporation” ignores our environmental laws and allows some uranium to escape into the environment in Utah where the milling operations will actually take place. What would the radioactive hazard be compared to the alternative? In the US, the alternative is coal, and the radioactive hazard of burning it, without even taking the risk of global warming and cancer causing particulates into account, is vastly greater than the risk of mining uranium. Every year a typical coal plant releases several tons of uranium and thorium, which are natural contaminants of coal, into the atmosphere in the form of particulates, highly dangerous because they are breathed in, coming directly into contact with sensitive lung tissue. Special scrubbers can be used to remove some of this, but in that case the captured ash will be radioactive, just like the uranium mill tailings, and will represent a comparable hazard. Are we to prefer solar or wind energy? They come with their own environmental hazards, such as heavy metal contamination and destruction of the fragile desert environments that would be ideal locations for them. They also don’t work if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. How are we to make up the slack when they are off line?

    The article continues:

    The waste from the milling process is 80% more radioactive than yellow cake and has a half-life of 4.7 billion years. Thousands of tonnes of waste are buried in containers lined with 60mm (2.4in) of plastic.

    Here, the author simply has no clue what she is talking about. 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? But isn’t yellow cake a uranium compound, and isn’t the ore radioactive to begin with because of the presence of a fraction of one percent of uranium? Yellow cake is more than half pure uranium by weight, and most of the uranium will have been extracted from the waste. How, then, could it conceivably be 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? Presumably by 4.7 billion years she means the half life of uranium 238, which is actually somewhat less than that, but if she’s talking about uranium, how could it be 80% more radioactive than uranium? The sentence is incomprehensible as it stands.

    Of course, there is always a “theoretical risk” of anything one could name, and, sure enough,

    “Theoretically uranium could get into the water supply,” said Andrea Alpine, senior adviser on the USGS uranium project.

    It’s not only “theoretical,” but a fact that natural uranium gets into our food and water regardless, and we each ingest a microgram or two of the stuff every day. What the article fails to describe is a credible explanation of how significant amounts of uranium over and above this natural average would contaminate anyone’s water supply from the Denison mine, and what the risk of such a thing happening really is. The article continues,

    When uranium comes into contact with oxygen it becomes soluble in water, which increases the chance of contamination. Radioactive dust can also be blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. This is what Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Indian tribe fears most. The Havasupai live on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and derive water from the rim.

    What the author means by this is anybody’s guess. Uranium mined in Arizona usually comes in the form of U3O8, an oxide of uranium which has a very low solubility in water, and does not become more soluble on exposure to air. Possibly she’s talking about leaching operations, in which uranium compounds can be made more soluble by introducing oxygen into the leaching liquid. It really makes very little difference. Anti-nuclear ideologues often emphasize the solubility of uranium if it’s a question of telling scary stories about ground water contamination, but can make it insoluble with a wave of their magic wands if they prefer scary stories that require it to stay in place, as in contamination of small geographic locations or organs in the body. Once again, of course, the mine is not in the Grand Canyon watershed. We are not enlightened about why the Havasupai should, nevertheless, be afraid of water washing over the rim.

    The article concludes with a perfect “Avatar” ending,

    “Mining companies are pursuing uranium for their own profit,” she said. “But the only benefit that we are going to get is a source of contamination. We are concerned about the future of our children, that’s why we fight this.”

    Apparently the Beeb is no longer worried that the future of our children is threatened by the emission of greenhouse gases that happen not to come from nuclear plants. I will await with interest their explanation of why they have become global warming deniers.

  • ITER on the Move, or White Elephants have Long Lives

    Posted on September 14th, 2010 Helian No comments


    The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is a prototype magnetic confinement fusion reactor currently being built at Cadarache in the south of France. According to a message by the new director of the ITER organization posted at facility’s Newsline,

    The Baseline describes ITER all the way from the beginning of construction, through commissioning, and on to Deuterium-Tritium operation. The main milestones will be the achievement of First Plasma in November 2019 and the start of Deuterium-Tritium operation by March 2027 ultimately taking ITER to 500 MW of fusion power.

    He adds that “The world is watching us closely.” If so, it appears we’re going to be watching closely for a very long time. Evidently the plasma physics guys are nursing this thing like an all day sucker. It sounds like the scheduled building time is already running neck and neck with the Great Pyramid, and will soon be giving some of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages a run for their money.

    With any luck, some bright physicist(s) will finesse Mother Nature out of her fusion secrets using some known (see, for example, here and here) or yet to be discovered alternative to the “traditional” brute force magnetic and inertial confinement fusion approaches well before they ever get around to feeding tritium to this white elephant. Failing that, maybe the upcoming experiments on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) will be a lot more successful than I expect. Either way, some excuse to pull the plug on ITER is sorely needed. If nothing else, it will encourage some very bright scientists to do something useful with their talents for a change. All complex cost analyses done using the most up to date methods to the contrary, ITER will never be able to compete with the available alternative energy sources in terms of cost any time in the next few centuries.

  • Three Cheers for the Human Extinction Movement!

    Posted on September 13th, 2010 Helian 2 comments

    Human morality is a wonderful thing, dear reader. Thanks to our species’ rapid evolution of big brains, we can completely outsmart ourselves by discovering that it is “immoral” to have children. The wiring in the brain of the woman in this video (hattip Insty and Ann Althouse) responsible for the expression of morality is an evolved trait, existing solely because it enhanced the chances of successful reproduction among the individuals who were her ancestors. Now, manifesting itself in a world utterly different from the one in which it evolved, her “morality,” filtered through her “rational” thought processes, is prompting her to commit suicide. It’s a remarkable example of “instinct” inversion. The predispositions responsible for moral behavior have been completely stood on their heads, producing an outcome that is the exact opposite of the one that led to the evolution of those predispositions to begin with.

    This is a good thing. There are too many humans on this fragile planet, as is evident from the increasing severity of the environmental problems we’ve been facing. It would be reasonable to reduce the human population to, say, one billion, so we can step back and assess how many of us our little spaceship can comfortably maintain. It is, after all, the only one we have at the moment. On the other hand, as individuals, we have the imperative to survive and reproduce. For reasons that readers of this blog will understand, it is not possible to do anything more immoral than failing to survive. The solution? To enthusiastically support the Human Extinction Movement, and have as many children as possible ourselves. Duplicitous? There can be nothing more duplicitous than tricking emotions that evolved because they promoted our survival into promoting our self-destruction. Immoral? The only reason morality exists to begin with is because it has enhanced our chances of doing precisely what I am suggesting. Self-defeating? Not a chance. The number of people on the planet rational enough to understand and take my advice represent a tiny minority, and won’t constitute a “population bomb” in their own right any time in the foreseeable future.

    Three Cheers for the Human Extinction Movement then!  The sooner they succeed in their worthy goal of exterminating themselves, the better.  The planet will be a much better place for our children without them.