Adding One Word Turns Science Into Bullshit

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Met Éireann's headquarters were modelled on the Death Star

I was wondering what Gaddafi was really up to when he declared a ceasefire. Taking a chance to regroup perhaps, or attempting to bargain? In fact it was something a whole lot more audacious: He would continue to kill people, while saying “Stop fighting back, this is a ceasefire”.

Meanwhile for some reason, the Independent thinks it’s clever to publish the headline “Explosion could send contamination to Ireland“, as if there was actually some reason to fear that happening.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland said it was “extremely unlikely” that any material being released from the nuclear plant would have health implications here.
But Met Éireann forecaster Pat Clarke warned that if an explosion occurred, Ireland could be affected.
“If there was an explosion of up to 30,000 feet, that (material) would be carried (across the world),” he said.

Let’s leave aside the image of 30,000 exploding feet. If we can read even more into his words that has been already, he presumably means an explosion that ejects radioactive debris to a height of 30,000 feet. This would be possible if a Chernobyl-like explosion and fire does occur. Indeed, debris from Chernobyl was carried to the furthest corners of the globe.

Where it did… pretty much nothing.

While it clearly had deadly effect in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and probably killed in Western Europe too, the fallout was gradually dispersed as it spread, eventually becoming so diluted as to be insignificant next to normal background radiation. So the probability that the explosion of a reactor as far away as Japan will actually harm anyone in Ireland? To use a round number, zero.

Which is what the story here is actually saying – if you ignore the spin. See that “but” in the second sentence of the part quoted? It suggests that this statement disagrees with the previous, that one national agency is contradicting another. That’s what turns these two rather anodyne statements into a story. Ask two different questions, “Can debris from Fukushima hurt us?” (answer: No) and “Could debris from Fukushima get here?” (answer: Yes), then put the two together so that what is actually a reassuring agreement between experts sounds like a worrying conflict. Voilà, news.

Don’t Panic – But Do Walk Away

The China Syndrome
Image via Wikipedia

If I was in Tokyo right now, I fucking wouldn’t be. It sounds like they’re rapidly losing control of the situation at Fukushima. With the cooling system gone, the fuel stored at the number four reactor first melted and has now gone critical – that is, it’s acting like a nuclear reactor itself, generating vast amounts of heat and radiation. And the occasional explosion.

So now they have a pool of self-heating molten metal that is too dangerous to approach. It is hard to imagine what exactly they are going to do about that.

It looks like we could see China syndrome here. Except of course in Japan it is somewhere near the Falklands Islands syndrome. There is a real possibility that Fukushima is going to become the worse nuclear accident ever. And it is close to one of the greatest cities on Earth.


The Argument For Nuclear Energy 2

History of the use of nuclear power (top) and ...
Image via Wikipedia

The first question then is: Does the world need nuclear to avert global warming and/or replace fossil fuels?

And I’m afraid the answer is an unequivocal Yes. It is pretty much inevitable that as fossil fuels dwindle, we are going to use nuclear more. But we must not make the error of seeing it as a solution to these problems. Debate goes on over how long supplies of uranium and other fissile materials will last, but there is no question that like fossil fuels before them, they are finite. Even if they are safer than hydrocarbons – even if they were perfectly safe – they remain a stopgap measure.

The real technical challenge we face is making these non-renewables hold out until renewable energy systems are sufficiently developed to take their place. We have a destination to reach, if you like, and just one tank to get there on. We do not know how long the journey is. There are no filling stations.

And we need to get there as soon as we can. In part of course because both fossil and fissile are environmentally harmful, but mainly because the more of them we use up, the more expensive they will become. A world that is struggling to find sufficient energy just to keep going is not a world that will be able to take on massive engineering projects. If we do not reach that destination while energy is still relatively cheap, we may find that we cannot afford to get there ever. In which case, we face war and starvation on a barely imaginable scale. Energy is, quite simply, the means to survival.

So what I fear most about nuclear power is not its risks, but that it will give us a sense of energy security where none is justified. We need – and we need right now – to focus on the long-term destination, not on finding new ways to keep the unsustainable going that little bit longer.

The Argument For Nuclear Energy 1

Nuclear CartoonIt was not the best day to argue for nuclear energy.

However Philip Walton, emeritus prof of physics at NUIG¹ and son of Irish Nobel laureate Ernest Walton², appeared on national radio last Friday to do just that. News of Japan’s reactor emergency was just coming in at this point, but the appearance was part of a campaign that he and two other physicists had launched at NUIG on Wednesday, so cancelling was really out of the question.

It all seemed a little surreal.

We should not of course let circumstances carry the debate. There are strong arguments in favour of using nuclear fission to generate electricity. Walton is perfectly right to say that all other methods have their risks and their costs too.

The debate is really over how you quantify those costs, and one person’s convincing argument is another’s canard. Walton for instance says that more people are killed mining coal in China every year than in the whole history of the nuclear industry. This may be true – but should we really take greater risks here just because the Chinese have an appalling safety record?

The argument needs to be broken down further:

  • Does the world need nuclear to avert global warming and/or replace fossil fuels?
  • Assuming the answer is yes, do we need to have a nuclear generator here?

The first part is of course enormously controversial right now, and is going to get more so.

I will try to deal with it tomorrow.

  1. The National University of Ireland, Galway. (My own alma mater, as it happens.)
  2. (As in Cockcroft and)

Accident and Design

It is weird how people focus on the nuclear angle. One Irish news programme even got a radiological official on to assure us that we wouldn’t be in any danger here. We really have no sense of proportion about radiation – and I speak as someone who is not in favour of nuclear electricity generation. This is against a background of perhaps 10,000 actual deaths caused by the natural disaster. So far it’s only been reported that 160 people may have even been exposed to some level of radiation.

For sure, questions do need to be asked about why such an earthquake-prone country is so dependent on this energy source. And it is also true that the nuclear threat is a human element in the story, a preventable disaster.

But we shouldn’t overlook the preventable disaster that was prevented. An earthquake and a tsunami of unprecedented size struck one of the most densely populated places on the Earth. There might easily have been millions dead.

In a place where almost all habitable land is coastal there is little one can do to stave off a tsunami, short of abandoning the country altogether. But buildings can be designed to withstand tremors. They were, and they did so brilliantly. Compare this to Christchurch where they were not anticipating an earthquake and so hadn’t built for it. Amid this tragedy, Japan can take some comfort in the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.