Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 30, 2011

One of the things I love about the internet is that I get to meet people I wouldn't have otherwise. Here are a couple of artists worth knowing.

Jeffrey Lewis tries to track down a quote attributed to Enrico Fermi. I guess I haven't paid enough attention to that one; I would have attributed it to Edward Teller. I've certainly heard it from his students and acolytes enough times.

Dana Milbank breaks with the cool kids.

Bad news! The Armchair Generalist is going silent.

What we might learn from the Greg Mortenson debacle: "the search for the next killer app or the next big star makes us vulnerable to fads and, simply, to the characteristic failures of many organizations focused on a single person or a single gripping idea." Journalists, are you listening? Progress is more often incremental, boring by newsy standards.

Thirty-six years ago today, the Marines left Saigon. The predictions of what would happen next were as dire as those about Afghanistan today. And they were wrong. Something to think about. Government policy folks, are you listening?

So this gorgeous female who is interested in missile technology wants to be your friend on Facebook and follows you on Twitter? What do you do? Give her the secrets she asks for, of course, if you're a guy. Hey, it's worked before.

Friday, April 29, 2011

India: Still Unique

One of President George W. Bush's brave ideas was to normalize nuclear trade with India. India would be a counterweight to China in Asia. India is the world's largest democracy, so there would be much commonality to its interests and America's. And normalizing trade would help to bring India within the ambit of nuclear restraint that most of the rest of the world has accepted through the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Those were all more or less explicit justifications for the negotiations between the United States and India in 2006 on nuclear trade. The NPT banned nuclear trade with nations that didn't accept its constraints, but Bush was forging a new world, outside the requirements of those treaties that constrained the United States' great power. And he knew best.

Less discussed was the role of the various lobbies in pressing for the trade agreement: the nuclear industry, the Indian-American lobby, and, of course, the defense industry. The reasoning was that a favorable relationship with India would bring big bucks to the nuclear and defense industries, undoubtedly part of the argument by the Indian-American lobby. India was looking for military aircraft, in particular. India would be so grateful for the opening of nuclear trade by its great friend the United States that much of the business would go in that direction.

And today we have the outcome.

New York Times: U.S. Loses Bids to Supply Jets to India

Washington Post: U.S. firms lose out on India fighter jet contract

It was quite clear throughout the negotiations that India would follow the path it has always followed: Indian interests, with a certain flavoring of self-righteousness, come first. India will make the very best choices for itself, which will be the very best choices for the world. That's not very different from the way most nations negotiate, although India tends to be more explicit about that. President Bush wanted a deal very badly, and from many accounts, ordered the negotiators to give the Indians what they wanted. And they did.

India's approach to the fighter jet deal is not different from the correspondence I received from Indian nuclear weapons advocates back in 2006: India is beholden to no other country. That has been the nucleus of India's objection to the NPT. So, given an extremely weak negotiation by the US resulting in a deal highly favorable to India's nuclear weapons program, today's result should surprise nobody.

How Many Roads?

Back in the 1960s, I took "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind" to mean that soon, any day now, some of those things would come to pass. And some of them sort of did.

Wikipedia says there's an ambiguity to "blowin' in the wind." I've always been an optimist and still don't feel the downside.

That's fifty years on, now. Back then it was a bit more than fifty years on since Reconstruction, a hundred years now. And we still have racism that's willing to be right in our faces. You know what I'm talking about, the birther nonsense, the still-too-common slurs that those darker folks just can't be as good as us whities.

I just don't get it, and it's seemed that the people who were born back then, when a new world seemed to be blowin' in the wind, seem less willing to get it, too. We've got one of the best and smartest presidents we've had in some time. Lovely family and family values, too, if by family values you mean loving and encouraging each other toward the best they can be.

I've experienced a mild version of what's going on, and it seems as if the prejudices toward women are flaming up again too. But that's prejudice light compared to what's going on with Donald Trump and the demands for President Obama's birth certificate. It's never enough. Place highest on the tests, live an exemplary life, no, we need to see more, you need to jump one more hurdle, then another and another. Even being elected President isn't enough for them.

I think that Juan Cole and Baratunde Thurston have provided the best commentary.

But I disagree with Thurston on one thing. I think that President Obama easily showed himself to be the better person this week. It probably won't stop the racists; maybe the rest of us can help with that.

And here's another place we need to be working to eliminate racism.

Added later: Jeff Danziger gets it right.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


What Haunts Yoo at Night

Torture advocate John Yoo thinks that the President of the United States has the executive power to order a village of civilians slaughtered. But force federal contractors to disclose their political donations? That's a bridge too far.
In an editorial former Bush-era Justice Department official Yoo and David Marston wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the authors argued that the "only purpose" of an executive order being considered by President Barack Obama to require companies seeking federal contracts to disclose political contributions "is to dangle the specter of retaliation.. and harassment."
If a small businesswoman wants to sell paper clips to the Defense Department, Mr. Obama would force her to reveal contributions to groups such as Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association. These donations are obviously irrelevant to whether she made the most reliable bid at the lowest price.
While the editorial says that the order "represents the latest salvo in the Obama administration's war on the First Amendment rights of its political opponents," there's no word from Yoo on whether the President has the executive power to torture executives to force them to disclose their political donations.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Twenty-five years ago today, I was working on the chemistry of flame and flame suppressants. I got a phone call (not much use of e-mail then) from the Los Alamos Director's Office to attend a meeting on the events at Chernobyl. That phone call probably came a day or two later; it took some time for the world to realize what was happening in the secretive Soviet Union.

It turned out that there wasn't much I could contribute; dumping limestone, boron compounds, and other solids on the smoking reactor zombie was probably the best path and what was eventually done.

The Guardian has an article on what I've been thinking, as a result of my forays into the BEIR VII report: much more research is needed into the consequences of Chernobyl. The terrible numbers you will read in some places today are almost certainly incorrect; BEIR VII concludes that the results are pretty much what might have been expected, except for a higher number of thyroid cancer cases. Chernobyl is located in an area that historically has seen high incidence of goiter, a result of iodine deficiency, which may be part of the reason for those additional thyroid cancer cases.

I'm half-listening to a White House conference on energy security as I write this. Nice words are being said, especially by Jane Harmon, formerly of Congress and now at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, about the complementary roles of industry and the national laboratories. Conservatives and the business community, however, haven't allowed that to be the case for thirty years or so. Back in that Chernobyl time, I was fighting off arguments that industry could do what I was doing much better. They eventually, with the aid of internal fighting within the DOE complex, won. And, twenty-five years on, the technology I was working on is as dead as it was when I came to it in 1986, also under the influence of industry.

So I'm not holding my breath that we'll learn what we could about radiation hazards from Chernobyl. The Republicans would probably eliminate all research, so that they can make their cases unimpeded by fact. And beeee veeery afraaaid of the deficit!

Some more links about Chernobyl from Dan Yurman.

The Women of Chernobyl. Some things to think about in balancing radiation risks against having to abandon one's home.

Not about Chernobyl specifically, but a ridiculous result of some of the fear about stuff people don't understand.

Poly Styrene


Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Question and Some Answers

Daniel Little works through some of the numbers on income per percentile of the American population and asks
The big mystery is -- why do the majority of Americans accept this shifting equation without protest? And how can progressive political organizations and movements do a better job of communicating the basic social realities of our economy and our democracy to a mass audience? Social justice isn't a "special interest" -- it is a commitment to the fundamental interests and dignity of the majority of Americans.
David Kaiser suggests an answer:
The United States and much of the world are suffering from a terrible crisis of authority, both because of an increasing emphasis on individual self-expression, and because the intellectual basis of authority has been destroyed.
It is a great irony that participation at the highest levels of our society has been opened up to women, minorities, and gays during the same period in which the idea of "common good" has gone into eclipse.
I'd add another factor I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere. It's a variant on the "bread and circuses" theme. You're unhappy with your life? Not making enough money? But you're better than...somebody. Fill in the blanks; Rightwingers have used all the usual scapegoats, those that Kaiser mentioned, Muslims, and probably some that don't spring immediately to my mind.

The moral indignation machine has been revved up. But hate has a "use by" date. It gets old after a while, particularly when the dire effects of those slated to be hated don't materialize and some of them live down the block. So another target has been found.

I manage my household respectably and pay my debts. Why shouldn't the national government? They're embarrassing me by doing something I wouldn't do! I'm better than those slobs in Congress! Let's show them a thing or two!

Of course, as any number of commentators have pointed out, this morality doesn't transfer. But it keeps people from sitting down and thinking about the reality of their situation.

Blood Orange

Photo by Eric Hill, Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 22, 2011

How low are taxes? Too low.

David Frum concludes, with Irving Kristol and Bismarck, that the welfare state is consistent with conservatism.

Is it just me, or is there an awful lot of fantasizing these days? Pan-Arabism is back in fashion, although perhaps not among the Arabs. We shall see, I guess.

Here's a map of actual measurements of radiation from the Fukushima reactors. Whatta concept, NRC and NYT!

Frank Munger thinks back to the dearth of information on Chernobyl while it happened (anniversary April 26).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 21, 2011

I'm still struggling with BEIR VII, to try to get some numbers out on what the various radiation exposures associated with Fukushima mean in terms of people's health. In that regard, the far too many units used to describe those exposures are the subject of four posts at the American Nuclear Society's Nuclear Cafe by Stewart Brand, Steve Aplin, Mimi Limbach, and me.

I'm kind of sad to see Russia pulling out of the International Science and Technology Center, which funded former Soviet scientists to do non-weapons work after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I worked with a group at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Alatau, Kazakhstan, who were funded by the ISTC to assess the radiation risks at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and was extremely impressed by their work. But perhaps the need for external funding has lessened in Russia, and it would be condescending to continue this program. Nothing lasts forever, and this program was intended to deal with the particular conditions of an extraordinary time.

Back in the United States, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson has thrown his hat into the already crowded Republican presidential ring. There was a time, maybe as recently as a year ago, when I would have said that Johnson was too kooky to be a serious presidential candidate. No mas. As far as I can see, his biggest disadvantage is that he's not being paid by Roger Ailes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another I-Told-You-So

TEPCO has retracted the chlorine-38 measurements they published a couple of weeks ago.

There was much chortling over those measurements, because about the only way you could get chlorine-38 would be if there were "re-criticalities," if the fuel in the reactor cores or possibly the fuel pools were becoming critical again. I pointed out the improbability of such things happening.

I hope that now those who were looking for the worst will retract their overblown interpretations of China-Syndrome-type meltdowns, fires in the fuel pools, and those unexplainable "localized criticalities."

This is why I haven't been rushing to interpret every single number that comes out of Japan, particularly when it's a stand-alone number like the chlorine-38. The demand that TEPCO release all its information (first comment on Jeffrey Lewis's post) is out of line. If people weren't rushing to be the firstest with the worstest, they wouldn't have to feel dumb when the conclusions they've jumped to turn out to be incorrect. And radiation-measuring instruments are prone to error.

Plus, you know, the people they're asking to provide all that had, like, an earthquake and a tsunami, as well as some reactors to take care of?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Your Chart For Today

Can't be said enough: Let the Bush tax cuts die!

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities via Ezra Klein. And read Ezra's piece.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 18, 2011

Happy Tax Day from John Cole!

Paul Revere's ride was 236 years ago today.

Tepco provides their plan for the next six to nine months to get all the reactors to cold shutdown. What's here and in its links needs an enormous amount of detail worked out. But they wouldn't necessarily make all that public.

A few weeks ago, the president of the American College of Surgeons wrote an editorial urging the value of semen's biochemicals, properly absorbed through a woman's mucous membranes. Unprotected sex, in other words. After some uproar, he has resigned as president. I'm still wondering why he thought writing that editorial was a good idea.

A former senate staffer writes his experience with that 1979 event in the South Atlantic Ocean that was detected by a VELA satellite. It's one more tiny piece of the story. I'm looking forward to when we'll hear all of it: did Israel and South Africa warn the United States? Did our intelligence know?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 16, 2011

Dan Yurman has been anticipating some of the posts I'd like to write on Fukushima and frequently doing a better job than I might have because he has more connections in the business community than I do. Here's a good one on how some of the big nuclear companies are salivating over the prospect of the eventual cleanup and what the NRC might have known and when. On that last issue, I am becoming more convinced that the New York Times map that showed deadly radiation doses out to the same radius NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was concerned about was in fact the modeling that he was relying on in his testimony to Congress that undercut what the Japanese government was saying. I also have suspected for some time, and Dan's post seems to support this, that one of the assumptions that the Times reporters didn't bother to question was that at least one full reactor core and one fuel pond were completely vaporized and distributed fairly uniformly. It's been clear for some time, even as the Times published that map, that that was an extreme worst case.

More photos of Fukushima damage.

And now for some thoughts on rampant marketism.

Bruce Bartlett, who was run out of the Republican Party for having the audacity of rationality on economic issues, has collected a great number of polls on Americans' feelings about the deficit and government spending. He makes a case that they don't like the first and do like the second but haven't put those two ideas together yet. However, it does seem that when faced with facts relating the two, they recognize a need for taxes, particularly on other people. Since "other people" include the 1% who have gotten most of the tax cuts over the last decade and are taking in 50% or more of the country's income, this actually makes a lot of sense. That number was not intended to be factual, but rather indicative of the wildly disproportionate wealth in that 1%. I keep seeing it written in different ways, and it's just too sickening to think about it enough to recall the exact number.

The miracle of the invisible hand deconstructed.

Back when I worked for an organization whose product was nuclear weapons, it occurred to me that there are some functions that probably should be left to the government. But we've gotten past those old inhibitions, and that organization is now managed by some of the same folks who are salivating at the $12 billion estimated for the Fukushima cleanup. It turns out that, silly me, I'm still stuck with that idea about the market not being the measure of all things. Here's another place where that seems to be the case. Could there be a conflict between the Hippocratic oath and making a buck?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 15, 2011

Roger Ebert reviews "Atlas Shrugged."

Seems to me that the solution to these two problems is for journalists to understand what they're writing or talking about. Clothes make the interview. "He said, she said."

Want an itemized receipt for your taxes? Here is is.

Senator Dick Durbin (D, IL) takes down Jamie Dimon (pdf). Nice to see a legislator who understands the laws he's proposing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Seven Out Of Seven

I have avoided saying anything here about the INES rating scale for nuclear accidents, because I don't think it's worth discussing. I've mentioned before the penchant of reporters for simple ways to report complex stories, condensing them down into a single number if possible. For those people, the INES rating scale is a godsend, as well as for the people who have been salivating for "another Chernobyl," something that seems to have started well before the Japanese earthquake.

But I'm encouraged by the news coverage of the one-number approach. Actually, I think that the media overall have done a pretty good job of covering Fukushima. They're having a hard time conveying risks, but let me tell you how long it's taken me to write my last couple of risk posts...

BBC News compares Fukushima to Chernobyl. The Christian Science Monitor discusses some of the objections to the INES scale, most of which I share. And the Russians are wondering whether the Japanese are exaggerating for financial reasons.

It's not clear to me what the purpose of the INES scale is, other than aiding lazy journalists. If it indeed winds up having to do with insurance, government aid, and other financial help, then there is a motivation to exaggerate, as the Russians point out.

So this is part of the story I'm not paying much attention to. What is actually happening at Fukushima is what's important.

Added later: Photos of tsunami damage at Fukushima.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bits and Pieces - Graphical Edition

America's military expenditures, via Ezra Klein.

Fukushima temperatures, pressures, and water heights in graphical form. The other pages have good stuff, too.

Another chart on radiation levels (h/t helmut).

The BEIR VII Report

I’ve been looking for numbers. What is the probability of a radiation dose of x millisieverts producing a cancer?

I should have found the BEIR VII report, BEIR standing for Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, some time ago. It’s been almost twenty years since BEIR V was a constant background presence at my job, the guide for understanding the radiation that my workers and I might be exposed to, one of the small number of studies used by governments to develop exposure standards. I happened on it quite accidentally, a week or so ago.

Over the past week, I’ve been reading that almost 400-page report. Well, not quite reading the whole thing. I’ve skimmed through sections, checking to see what kind of data it includes and how the data are treated, with ranges of error, reading the conclusions and summaries to check that I’ve gotten my skimming right. I read Chapters 11 and 12 carefully, on their risk assessment.

It’s important to understand how the BEIR VII committee did their work. I’ve done the kind of thing in my research that they did. It’s is some of the hardest work that scientists do, connecting the macro to the micro in order to derive a systematic understanding, in this case, of how radiation causes harm to the human body and how that risk can be quantified. In my case, the issue was how catalysts work. It requires building a framework of the best data, bridging between macro and micro.

That framework connects a wealth of epidemiological and laboratory data in order to predict, in the case of BEIR, the human health risks of radiation, and, in my case, how to design catalysts to facilitate particular chemical reactions. My project was much smaller than BEIR, and I won’t say more about it. Success in such an endeavor is not an exact fitting of every data point to an infallible prediction. Success is providing a simple and consistent model.

BEIR’s macro is a number of studies of humans who have been exposed to radiation. The micro is studies of cells in vitro and animals exposed to radiation. The ideal model would work from the kinds of radiation damage to cells as a function of type and energy of radiation, through the steps from that to cancer. The probabilities of the various steps would allow calculation of the risks to an individual or to a population. Unfortunately, the complete chain of information is a long way off. Radiation can result in other kinds of damage, but the data doesn’t support an analysis of those probabilities.

A framework is constructed with the information that is available. Some links in the framework are shorter and stronger than others, and multiple links substitute for certain knowledge. The objective is to form a network in which one bad link won’t collapse the whole structure, and I think that the BEIR VII committee has succeeded in doing this. That is not to say that things might not change in the future, as more information becomes available. But for now, BEIR VII and a few similar reports are the best that we have, and they’re pretty good.

BEIR VII winnows down the large number of studies that have been done.
Epidemiologic studies, in general, have limited ability to define the shape of the radiation dose-response curve and to provide quantitative estimates of risk in relation to radiation dose, especially for relatively low doses. To be informative in this regard a study should (1) be based on accurate, individual dose estimates, preferably to the organ of interest; (2) contain substantial numbers of people in the dose range of interest; (3) have long enough follow-up to include adequate numbers of cases of the disease under study; and (4) have complete and unbiased follow-up. Unfortunately, the published literature on environmental radiation exposures is not characterized by studies with such features. p. 235
The in-vitro and animal studies are also subject to a number of criteria in order to be included.

BEIR VII continues to use the study of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bomb attacks as its primary source of epidemiological data. It is the source that comes closest to the criteria above. As more information becomes available from Chernobyl, it seems likely that it will play a bigger role in BEIR estimates. But large numbers of people are needed to study the small effects of low-level radiation.
For example, using the usual criterion for statistical testing in order to detect with probability .80 a 5% increase in risk when the baseline risk is 0.10, the number of individuals at risk in the exposed group would have to be approximately nj,E = 30,000. p. 261
Several other studies, while not fully meeting the committee’s criteria, are examined for their support or lack thereof for the Japanese survivor data. There is support for the most part, but there are some departures. A blog post that appeared on March 30 lists a number of the studies covered in BEIR VII and a few more. It’s interesting, but not of the same reliability as BEIR VII.

The in-vitro and animal studies tend to support the assumption that radiation effects are linearly related to very low doses. This assumption is one of the places where critics of BEIR VII focus; both lower and higher effects have been promulgated.

Which brings me to the subject of cherry-picking. There are enough references in BEIR VII that almost anyone could select the ones that support their viewpoints. The importance of BEIR VII is in its conclusions and how those conclusions are supported; focusing on a single set of data or parts of a reference does not invalidate the BEIR VII findings. The value and meaning of individual references must be taken in context. So be wary of claims that BEIR VII supports particular viewpoints. The report itself is quite clear about its limitations.

What BEIR VII gives us is a working hypothesis, the best we have now.

I’ve given no numbers so far. I think that understanding what BEIR VII does and how it does it is important. Numbers to come in a future post.

[Cross-posted at the BMJ Blog.]

Saturday, April 09, 2011

On the Budget Deal

Steve Benen pretty well sums up my thinking.
A hostage strategy works well when the hostage taker makes it clear that killing the hostage is a perfectly viable option.
And it's worth adding in the paragraph from Matt Yglesias that Benen omits:
I hope people remember this year next time large Democratic majorities produce an inadequate stimulus bill, a not-good-enough health reform bill, a somewhat weak financial regulation bill, and fail to deliver on their promises for immigration and the environment. It’s easy in a time like that to get cynical and dismissive about the whole thing. But there’s actually a huge difference between moving forward at a slower-than-ideal pace and scrambling to reduce the pace at which you move backwards. Now we’re moving backwards.
I'll further point out that this is the budget for the 2011 fiscal year, the year we are more than six months into.

That means, unfortunately, that those who want to return to the golden days of the robber barons, child labor, and health care for those who can afford it will have two more bites at the apple. Or at the populace. That will be when they steel themselves to destroy America's financial credibility in the world by voting against raising the debt limit and when the budget for fiscal 2012 is considered.

The only way we can stop this rampage toward feudalism is to vote the lackeys of the upper 1% out.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Fukushima Threat Down?

The Los Angeles Times reports that the crisis at Fukushima appears to be ebbing, and that at least some US experts believe that the fuel has not melted in any of the reactors.
The most telling evidence about the condition of the reactors is the absence of heavy radionuclide contamination around the plant, which would indicate that uranium fuel became so overheated that it vaporized heavy fission products such as strontium and technetium, experts said.

Instead, the main contaminants have been isotopes of iodine and cesium, which are water soluble and are not held in the uranium fuel itself.
It's those radionuclides associated with fuel breakdown that I've been looking for in the monitoring reports and not seeing. It's important to remember that this evaluation is not final and is based on very limited data. But earlier, breathless reports in the New York Times for example, were based on even less data.

The LA Times article mentions the disarray at the NRC, where Chairman Gregory Jaczko early on recommended a much wider evacuation than did the Japanese government, apparently without consulting them. I suspect that Jaczko's recommendation was based on the modeling represented by the map published shortly after his statement in the New York Times showing deadly contamination out to 50 miles from the reactors. At the Carnegie Conference last week, when asked specifically about this recommendation, NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis said that the recommendation was made "in consultation with staff," decisions were made "in extreme ignorance," based on "extremely conservative calculations." It's been clear for some time that NRC has been trying to walk Jaczko's too-early comments back, and today's LA Times article indicates that questions continue to be asked on this subject.

With every day that passes, the heat load and radioactivity of the reactors decreases. The three biggest cement-pumping trucks in the world are arriving at Fukushima to keep water in the spent fuel pools. I still don't have a full answer to my question on whether water is being recirculated or added open-loop, but the amounts of water suggest that it is open-loop with significant evaporation.

And yeah, this is an I-told-you-so post. I'm not convinced that the scenario quoted in the LA Times is accurate, but the fact that modeling can now come up with a scenario in which the fuel is not all melted and the spent fuel pools did not catch fire suggests that the doomsayers haven't had the full picture and may have been driven by other motives than technical accuracy.

If it's an I-told-you-so post, it's incomplete. I'm headed out in a little while and will try to provide links later. I'm not sure I put as much of my thinking on the blog as I shared with others via email and discussions. But at least some of it is here at Phronesisaical.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 7, 2011

A 7.4 magnitude earthquake has shaken northeast Japan. A 1-meter tsunami is expected in the same area that was already hit. The previous tsunami was 14 meters at Fukushima, however. Update: Tsunami warning has been lifted.

How to tell if your neighbor is a bombmaker.

The idea of bringing all nuclear weapon states into some kind of a START-type data exchange arrangement seems to be going mainstream.

I have to apologize to Johnny Depp, the Mad Hatter, Alice, and the rest of the Wonderland crew for my post the other day. The Republicans are much further out.

Added later: US nuclear experts helping Japan. Those guys on the other end of the phone? I hear that Fukushima is the only thing the reactor guys at Los Alamos are doing these days. I might add that if the government shuts down, this support may shut down too, or become more difficult.

And, oh yeah, Russia seemed to be irritated with Iran for safety issues at Bushehr a while back. Iran says not to worry.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 5, 2011

Helmut and I were talking about how badly research funds are needed to develop better energy technologies and to evaluate possible mitigation schemes for global warming. I mentioned the great research boom of the 1960s, in which government led the way. During the 1980s, that approach was destroyed by greedy corporations who said they could do all that, much better than the government. And now we see the results. Ezra Klein has a nice graph illustrating the collapse of research funding. He uses it to make a different point, which I'll address later in this post. I'm wondering if that research boom is tied to the good economics of those times. Any economists who want to tackle this with me, leave a comment or e-mail me.

Ezra is bitching about how President Obama never does what Ezra and many other pundits, bloggers, and just plain gripers want him to do: get in the middle of the fight. Or maybe duck into a phone booth and emerge as Super-Prez! Sorry guys, cellphones have eliminated phone booths. I've maintained that 1) the Prez is leaving the work of citizens up to us and 2) he doesn't want to make every issue about him, which would happen if he intervened as much as the gripers want. It seems to me that I've seen more articles lately suggesting that we citizens need to be making our support (or not) clear to our elected representatives as they make fools of themselves and us, but I've been distracted and haven't collected those links.

Part of this gripe is that Obama isn't getting stuff done. At the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference last week, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon listed all the things relating to Obama's Prague speech on eliminating nuclear weapons that have been done in the two years since then. Today is the anniversary of that speech. Scott Sagan gives an accounting here. And the dumbest idea in missile technology has been left behind: loading ICBMs with conventional explosives, so that a recipient country wouldn't know if it was being nuked.

Back at Fukushima, it appears that the report of an isotope beloved of those pushing the "re-criticality" meme was mistaken. As I've pointed out, basing a theory on one measurement is pretty silly in a chaotic situation like this.

I would also take this with a grain of salt. There are a couple of vu-graf sets out there of what some people think, with a bit of modeling, may have been the sequence of events at Fukushima. Like the "re-criticality," this is largely speculation based on far too few data points. "Nuclear forensics" sounds very CSI, cool and accurate, but a friend who has been looking at the iodine isotope data much more closely than I have says that it just doesn't make sense. That could be because the data are bad, or because things we don't understand are happening.

Don't get on George Monbiot's bad side. He's looked at Fukushima and decided that the evidence is that nuclear energy is safe. He's posted two op-eds on that subject in the Guardian and now is taking on Helen Caldicott. I heard her speak a few weeks back and managed to identify some of the problems that Monbiot documents exhaustively. There's more I'd like to write on this subject, too, but I have to get back to BEIR VII.

Do you suppose this tea party is the one they really mean?


Monday, April 04, 2011


Bits and Pieces - Not Fukushima Edition

I'm taking a few minutes off from reading BEIR VII.

The changing politics of Russian Jewish immigrants in America.

Stephen Walt: Top 5 reasons we keep fighting all these wars.

Civic optimism: a bygone virtue in California.

Questions about Fukushima

I've been developing a number of questions as I watch the Fukushima news. Any reporters reading this post are free to use them without crediting me. These are what instantly spring to mind. I may have more later.

1. Does the fresh water now being used to cool the reactors and spent fuel ponds have boron added to it?

2. Are the coolant loops been operated in recirculate or open mode? By that I mean whether the water is being recirculated by pumps (new ones have been installed) or whether the water is taken in at one end and pumped out at the other. Or is water added and boiled off?

3. This is less a question than a general wondering about heat transfer issues. Let's say the core(s) were exposed and some damage occurred, perhaps even melting. That would have been at temperatures much above the boiling point of water. Pressure in the vessels makes water boil at somewhat higher temperatures, but adding water to the heated/ing fuel elements made really a lot of steam for a while. Now some of the cores are reported to be partially uncovered by water. But as long as they are partly covered by water, the ambient temperature inside the reactor vessel has to be lower than the boiling point of water at whatever the pressure is. So how much higher than that could the temperature of the exposed parts of the fuel elements go? They're going to be partially cooled by conduction into the parts covered by water.

And I've seen some stuff about temperature layering in the reactor vessel. How about convection? Have the laws of physics been suspended? Generally things have to be pretty stable or big to get temperature layering, as in lakes or the ocean. Temperature layering would be very unlikely if the water is being circulated, or if it's boiling off.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Post in Progress

I'm writing some more on radiation standards and how they relate to risks. But as I was going through the material, I realized that there was one reference that I had to take into account. That's what is called BEIR VII, the evaluation of relevant scientific studies on the relationship between radiation exposure and biological damage. I've dipped into earlier versions, but I am skimming and reading this one so that I can feel sure I'm representing the science properly.

Meanwhile, Mark Hibbs reports on a panel at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference. The post currently seems to be attributed to Jeffrey Lewis, but it was Mark who was on the panel, and his contribution is unmistakable.

Nuclear power kills fewer people than do other sources of electricity.

Thinking about risk can get mixed up with politics.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Bits and Pieces - April 1, 2011

A non-nuclear post that I'd like to blog more on but probably won't be able to.

George Monbiot: The double standards of green anti-nuclear opponents. This is an opinion piece. I've tried to stay away from posting primarily opinion pieces. It's almost impossible to avoid inserting my opinion at times into the discussion of Fukushima; as I noted in an earlier post, a certain amount even of setting radiation standards is judgement. This piece from Monbiot is significant because he has shifted to being in favor of nuclear energy as a result of the Fukushima incident.

A short and simple explanation of radiation that covers some things I haven't.

A very long post on the evidence for radiation effects on humans. This post and the previous one lead up to what I hope to write over the weekend about the radiation levels at Fukushima. This one pulls together a lot of information that I will use as a jumping-off point.

And TEPCO is reviewing its rad data. I guess I'm not surprised. This stuff is complicated enough that errors will be found as long as the incident is investigated.

Added later: Public Safety Alert from Michael Berubé.

Numbers, Please!

Something that some have been anxiously awaiting to see at Fukushima is "re-criticality." It's also referred to as "localized criticality" or "episodic fissioning." I've read descriptions that make it sound as though the fuel elements are dripping pieces with sparks of neutrons, light, and other scary things.

So far none of those proclaiming it have provided persuasive explanations, with numbers.

In order to have criticality or fission (with one exception, which I'll explain later), there must be a critical mass. The water being injected into the reactors has boron in it, and the fuel elements are spaced to allow water flow around them. The boron absorbs neutrons and prevents fission. So "re-criticality" isn't happening in fuel elements that retain their original configuration.

But the tops of the fuel elements are exposed in the reactors. So they can heat up (although the partial immersion will help to remove heat from them) and deform or break open. At worst, if they are suspended from the top, they may break off and fall to the bottom of the reactor vessel. Or small pieces may fall to the bottom of the vessel. The fuel pellets within the fuel elements are centimeter-sized. They are oxides and have very high melting points.

If fuel pellets come out of the fuel elements, each contains a small amount of uranium or plutonium and is incapable of becoming critical. Some large number would have to accumulate in the proper configuration without borated water between them to form a critical mass. And if that were the case, criticality would continue; it wouldn't be a flash.

If the fuel elements break off and fall to the bottom of the reactor, it seems unlikely that they would form critical masses. They would have to fall into a very orderly pile, and, again, criticality would continue.

It may be a lack of imagination, but I just don't see how you could get small bursts of criticality, and I haven't seen the proponents of "re-criticality" provide as much thinking-through as I've given here, let alone numbers for what the critical masses might be (they depend on configuration) or how critical configurations might occur.

The one exception is whatever plutonium-240 might be in the reactor. Plutonium-240 spontaneously fissions, but it is present in very small quantities. I'm wondering if the alleged activation products result from plutonium-240 neutrons, but, like those making that claim, I haven't looked up the numbers. The next things I want to do will require numbers, so that may take a little time. And I'll try to check this as well.

Starting Slowly

I'm back from the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in DC with a ton of material and thoughts which need to be arranged in some reasonable order before posting.

So for now, I will introduce you to one of the mysteries I have found in Estonia. The Estonians have no generic word for bread, and now they've introduced one more specific.

Also, some high-resolution photos of the Fukushima site from drones. I can't see much inside the wreckage, and, from what I know of reactor containment, I'm guessing that the debris did little damage.