environment

Not King Coal

Well who would have guessed it? Well to be fair, I don’t think I would have guessed it, at least not quite in this way … because according to a report in yesterday’s Guardian, coal-fired power stations are more injurious to health than nuclear ones.

In what’s described as a “natural experiment”, researchers followed the switch from nuclear to coal following the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, where they could compare power generation by nuclear (before) and coal (after) in the same area. They found particulate pollution increased by 27% and average birth weight fell. And that’s without any effect of the particulates on things like asthma.

Worse than Chernobyl

Yesterday, New Scientist posted an interesting news item on the Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan in the 1950s.

The tests were known about, but what’s new is that New Scientist have seen a hitherto unknown secret Soviet document containing scientific evidence of the effects of the tests; something which was hushed up at the time.

Needless to say the tests were conducted with total disregard to the local population. The Soviets knew this – even setting up a (disguised) research institute to monitor the medical effects – but carried on regardless. As a result it seems the effects produced a worse human “disaster” than Chernobyl.

Read the full news item at New Scientist.

Fukushima Latest

Thursday’s Guardian ran another article on the clean-up of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear site following the tsunami six years ago today. They point out, quite correctly, that two robots have now failed in trying to investigate the inside of the Reactor 2 containment vessel. I don’t see why this is such a surprise to everyone, or why quite so much recrimination continues.

Let’s be clear, again, once and for all. The containment at Fukushima did its job. It contained the reactor cores (admittedly only just) under stresses (earthquake and tsunami) way beyond its design specification.

What failed were the cooling systems. And they failed because of major shortcomings in the risk analysis, and therefore the placement and design, of the plant.

Yes, there was a radiation leak – small in comparison to Chernobyl – as a result of fractures in the buildings surrounding the containment vessels. And yes, this is a disaster for the 160,000 people who were evacuated – the disaster is their displacement and, medically, the psychological effects, rather than the risks due to the actual radiation encountered in the time between the leaks and their evacuation.

The tsunami killed around 19,000 people. The radiation, as far as I am aware, has caused zero direct deaths (although a handful have died in accidents during the clean-up operation).

Of course the clean-up is going to take a very long time and be hugely expensive. The radiation level inside the containment vessels is going to be incredibly high – high enough to kill a human within minutes. So without robots there is no way to find out what actually is happening inside; and they will succumb to high radiation levels and blocks in their access routes. And yes there is a huge quantity of contaminated groundwater to contend with. Why would we expect otherwise?

The current estimate is that the clean-up will take 30-40 years and cost $189bn, although many believe this a significant underestimate in both time and money. On that basis one has to ask whether the clean-up should continue, or whether the whole plant should be permanently encased as has been done recently at Chernobyl – but I’ve seen no-one even mentioning this as a possibility. I’d be interested to see some analysis of the possibilities.

Better Nuclear Power

A week ago IFLScience published a very long, and fully referenced, article on a forgotten nuclear power technology which is much more efficient and robust than the current Light Water Reactors (LWR). It is actually a breeder reactor (but one which doesn’t produce weaponable products) called a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR).

As usual what follows is a few extracts by way of the TL;DR summary.

According to the article MSR are not just a better nuclear technology but also beat most other power sources (including most renewables) into a cocked hat.

Today’s cheap, bountiful supplies make it hard to see humanity’s looming energy crisis … Fossil fuels could quench the planet’s deep thirst for energy, but they’d be a temporary fix at best … renewable energy sources like wind and solar, though key parts of a solution, are not silver bullets … Nuclear reactors, on the other hand, fit the bill: They’re dense, reliable, emit no carbon, and – contrary to bitter popular sentiment – are among the safest energy sources on earth. Today, they supply about 20% of America’s energy.

The good news is that a proven solution is at hand – if we want it badly enough.

Called a molten-salt reactor [it] forgoes solid nuclear fuel for a liquid one … in theory, molten-salt reactors can never melt down … It’s reliable, it’s clean, it basically does everything fossil fuel does today … [and produces] energy without emitting carbon … What’s more, feeding a molten-salt reactor a radioactive waste from mining, called thorium (which is three to four times more abundant than uranium), can “breed” as much nuclear fuel as it burns up.

MSR were developed in the early days of the Cold War and the technology was proven in pilot production. However they were never pursued because (a) they didn’t produce weapons grade materials and (b) “not invented here”.

The article follows with a brief analysis of the safety of nuclear energy compared with traditional power generation, and a very brief summary of how nuclear physics works. Followed by an explanation of how MSRs using thorium can “breed” and then use uranium 233 but not weaponable plutonium.

The concept of the breeder reactor was fairly straightforward. It would dramatically increase the chances for fission, boost the flow of neutrons, and breed more fissile fuel from a “fertile” material than the reactor burned up. Breeding U-238 into Pu-239 created an excess of plutonium. Meanwhile, breeding thorium into U-233 broke even, burning up just as much fuel as it made. The choice of fuel makes all the difference. The plutonium fuel cycle is a great way to make weapons. Meanwhile, the thorium fuel cycle can produce almost limitless energy. A fluid-fuelled design [would] eliminate the considerable difficulty of fabricating solid fuelled elements … Liquid fuel also made it easy to remove both useful fission products – for example, for medical procedures, and those that poison nuclear chain reactions.

OK, so what’s the downside? Basically, apart from the proof-of-concept pilot, the technology hasn’t been developed fully. But it could be developed, and probably relatively easily, probably as the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). And the article lists (some of) the advantages of LFTR:

  • Fuel burn-up is extraordinarily high. LFTRs could fission about 99% of their U-233 liquid fuel, compared to a few percent for solid fuel.
  • It’s easy to clean up. Solid fuels build up fission products, or new elements generated by the splitting of atoms, which poison fission reactions and often end up being treated as waste. Liquid fuels, meanwhile, can be processed “online” – and the fission products continuously removed, refined, and sold.
  • There’s less waste and it’s shorter-lived. For the above reasons, hundreds of times less radioactive waste is left over from LFTR operation compared to LWRs. And what remains requires burial for about 300 years, as opposed to 10,000 years.
  • LFTRs operate under safe, normal pressure. All commercial reactors compress water coolant to extreme pressures – upwards of 150 times that found at Earth’s surface. One small breach can lead to a catastrophic explosion. If a LFTR pipe breaks, however, molten salt will only spill on the ground and freeze.
  • Environmental contamination is far less likely. LWRs can release gases, fuel, and fission products into the air and water. Molten salt freezes and traps most contaminants.
  • LFTRs can be made small and modular. LWRs require giant, reinforced-concrete containment vessels that scale with their operating pressure. LFTRs require small containment structures, so they could be made small – possibly to a size that’d fit [on a truck].
  • They should be much cheaper and faster to build. LFTRs don’t require many of the expensive safeguards that LWRs do. Their potential to be modular could also lead to mass manufacture of parts and reduced cost.
  • LFTR is immune to meltdowns. Molten salt that overheats will expand, slowing down fission.
  • The design is “walk-away safe.” No nuclear power plant today can claim this. LWRs require backup power systems to cool solid fuel at all times. If power is knocked out to a LFTR, a freeze plug melts and lets the molten salt fall into underground containment units, where it freezes and stops fission.
  • Electricity output is better. LFTRs are so hot, operating at roughly [1000°C] they can use more advanced heat-to-electricity conversion technologies.
  • The excess heat is very useful. It could boil and desalinate ocean water into drinking water, help generate hydrogen for fuel cells, break down organic waste into biofuels, and power industrial processes.
  • The “kindling” to start a LFTR is flexible. Burning up old nuclear weapons material is possible, since fissile U-233, U-235, or Pu-239 can be used to start the reactor.

So if thorium reactors are so great, what’s the holdup?

It basically boils down to … The science is easy. The engineering is hard … [which] is true in many, many advanced systems, nuclear and nonnuclear for that matter, where the scientists’ proof of concept is everything to them … To the engineer, getting it to the commercial-viability stage is their goal. And those are two very different hills to climb.

So there is still a long road ahead, but given the apparent advantages isn’t this a technology we should be pursuing? Yes, India and China are already doing so.

Fukushima, Again

Yet again this week there has been another round of scare stories about what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant which was so catastrophically crippled by the tsunami following the 11 March 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake.

We had headlines and comments like:

Radiation levels in the Fukushima reactor are soaring unexpectedly [Science Alert]
Radiation In Fukushima Is Now At ‘Unimaginable’ Levels [Huffington Post]
The situation has suddenly taken a drastic turn for the worst [EcoWatch]
Fukushima nuclear reactor radiation at highest level since 2011 meltdown [Guardian]
Blazing radiation reading [Japan Times]
Radiation Levels Are Soaring Inside the Damaged Fukushima Nuclear Plant [Gizmodo]

As I suspected when I first saw the stories, and has been confirmed by Jonathan O’Callaghan at IFLScience and Azby Brown at Safecast, this is the usual sloppy, not to say totally misleading, reporting. (Both these reports are worth reading; neither is especially long or difficult.)

Yes, TEPCO (who are responsible for the plant) have measured incredibly high radiation readings (530 Sieverts an hour — with an error of +/- 30% — that’s enough to kill a human in seconds) inside Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2. To do this they have used a 10.5 metre robotic arm to image further inside the Unit 2 containment vessel that they ever have before. The images appear to show a 1 meter square grating melted by exposed fuel rods. From the data obtained TEPCO have estimated the radiation level. But this does NOT mean radiation levels there are rising. That is not what the data are indicating — they can’t say that as this area has not been measured before, so there is only this one reading.

As IFLScience reported:

Measurements in new locations … pin-point hot-spots and understand the nature of the radioactive materials within the reactor complex and to better inform us on suitable strategies for long-term decommissioning and clean-up … The purpose of this was to plot out a route for a robot [TEPCO] is planning to send into the reactor … But the robot is only able to survive an exposure of up to 1,000 Sieverts. At 530 Sieverts per hour, it would be destroyed in just two hours. Thus, this latest finding is likely to complicate [the decommissioning] even further.

They also point out:

While a higher level of radiation has been found inside the plant, levels around it are continuing to fall. This suggests no radiation is escaping from Fukushima into the surrounding environment … There are many people wandering around in Japan with radiation monitors and it would be very easy to see if there was an increase in radiation coming from the plant.

So note carefully: that despite all the problems and the environmental contamination, the various levels of containment vessels in the reactors essentially did their job. They have contained the vast, vast majority of the radioactive material under conditions which were way beyond their design.

That doesn’t take away from the human disasters nor from the unimaginable work which will have to be done over the next, probably, 50 years to decommission the site. But it does show that this was not the immense catastrophe so often painted by the media and environmental groups.

In a classic piece of understatement IFLScience conclude with:

So radiation levels aren’t soaring, but it’s a grim picture all around really. As the latest announcement from TEPCO shows, the clean-up of Fukushima is going to be anything but easy — and there’s a long, long way to go.

Time to stop panicking and enjoy the weekend!

Your Monthly Links

Here’s this month’s instalment of links to items of interest, or amusement, you may have missed he first time round.

Science & Medicine

Who thought leprosy was only a biblical and medieval affliction? Well it ain’t, ‘cos it seems British red squirrels carry leprosy — only the third known species after humans and nine-banded armadillos.

Who’d be a scientist’s cat? Not content with abuse by Schrödinger, scientists continue to drop cats in aid properly understanding their self-righting mechanism.

Trees do it in secret. Communicate, that is. Ecologist Peter Wohlleben thinks he knows what trees feel and how they communicate. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

The Guardian has a very interesting page which (goes some way) to showing you how visually impaired people see the world.

So why is it that French mothers don’t suffer from bladder incontinence? It sounds deeply dodgy, but it does appear to be a thing.

So there was this contemporary of Isaac Newton who produced the foundations of the current Information Age. Yes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Sexuality

So here’s yet another article suggesting that women don’t actually know what orgasm is. I had hoped we’d got past all this by now!

Environment

So here are ten things about our cutest invasive species: cats. If they weren’t so cute they’d not get away with half what they do.

There’s an interesting new theory about how the brown rat has conquered every city around the globe.

Language

Oxford University Press have recently published a massive new dictionary. It lists every surname found in the UK (including imported ones like Patel) which is held by 100 or more people. That’s almost 50,000. Not just that, but the OUP and academics have done deep research into all these names to determine their origins, often finding previously unknown documentary evidence. Want a copy? OK, well it’s four volumes and will set you back £400. But they reckon there will be an online accessible version.

Art & Literature

Prepare to be amazed. Artist Charles Young has created a complete animated metropolis from paper.

History

It seems the Romans really were ahead of the game. Researchers have discovered metallic ink used on some of the scrolls from Herculaneum (neighbour of Pompeii). That’s around 500 years earlier than previously thought.

Birth by C-section is rather (too?) common these days. But in days of yore, before modern medicine, C-sections were only performed in order to save a child by sacrificing the mother. It was rare for the mother to survive. But new evidence suggests that Beatrice of Bourbon survived a C-section as early as 1337. The previous record was of a Swiss case in 1500.

London

London blogger IanVisits walks the route London’s Roman Wall.

In which Diamond Geezer considers becoming a London cabbie.

Many pubs have dutiful dogs to look after them, but there are London pubs with characterful cats too.

Lifestyle

Just in case you hadn’t realised, there are actually good scientific reasons why you should always be naked. What’s more I can vouch for this from personal experience.

It seems we have it all wrong about addiction. We need to build “rat heaven” for humans rather than prison cells, as this video explains.

To quote poet Philip Larkin: They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you. So yes, here are 30 ways in which your childhood can affect your success as an adult. Which explains a lot.

I have a dream that one day the medical profession will make up their minds about alcohol consumption. Now some new research suggests a beer a day helps prevent stroke and heart disease.

Not content with London, Diamond Geezer takes an away-day to Lowestoft, Mrs M’s home town.

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally … it seems that in the Middle Ages witches stole penises and kept them as pets or even grew them on trees as fruit. [The mind boggles over whether the fruit would be sold by the butcher or the greengrocer!]

More next month …

Oh what a surprise!

So, as usual it seems, we’re now being told that the bill for Heathrow Runway Three is going to be much higher than is being said. Worse, that extra cost is going to fall on the taxpayer and not on the private enterprise (the airport). Yesterday’s Guardian reported former Transport Secretary as the person raising the concern:

“There will be a number of specific things we will be doing for Heathrow. The government and Heathrow need to come clean on what the cost to the taxpayer is going to be.” … While the [Davies] commission report estimated a £5bn bill for new roads and rail links, Transport for London put the potential cost as being as high as £18.4bn.

Heathrow said it had earmarked just £1bn, and that it only accepted direct responsibility for works to the M25, which the third runway would cross, and a few minor roads. The airport contends that it will be cutting traffic, despite adding up to 55 million passengers a year, and that revenues could offset the bill.

Oh? Pray tell me how adding 55 million passengers a year will reduce traffic.

Moreover:

Heathrow confirmed on Wednesday that executives would be paid bonuses, for securing a new runway, that would be expected to run into several million pounds.

And there’s even more …

Campaigners have highlighted an apparent admission that pollution is likely to rise in parts of London with a third runway, which they say potentially makes the scheme illegal.
The report, produced by Parsons Brinckerhoff for the DfT, said that Heathrow was “at risk of worsening exceedances of limit values alongside some roads within greater London, but this would be unlikely to affect the overall zone compliance”.
However, this is likely to be contested. Legal opinion obtained by the Clean Air in London campaign, from Robert McCracken QC, states that worsening pollution in any areas that already exceed legal limits would break the law.

That’s alright then, bugger the law. Oh we’ve already done that.

And don’t you just love “at risk of worsening exceedances of limit values”. WTF language do they think they’re writing? Can’t be Vogon; we’d stand a chance of understanding that.

So as usual it seems we’re not being told the whole story; there are hidden vested interests and conflicts of interest. And the whole funding situation is being fudged so that in years to come it will be too expensive (financially and politically) to scrap the project so it is completed with money we don’t have, provided by central government and filched from the pockets of the already screwed taxpayers — or worse borrowed on the never-never. (See HS2 and London’s proposed Garden Bridge for similar current likely examples.)

It’s another plane crash (in so many ways) waiting to happen. And government don’t get it. In spades. FFS!

PS. I know I live near Heathrow (though not under the main flightpaths) but I don’t care where this runway is going to be built. We shouldn’t be doing it. And we certainly shouldn’t be doing it — like most major projects — in such an underhand way.

Heath-NO!

So yesterday, quite predictably and after years of dithering, the government decided that it is going to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

They still don’t get it, do they? See a number of earlier posts hereabouts.

So why do they do it? I suspect it is a combination of (A) vested interests (ie. the business lobby and politicians share portfolios), (B) the fact that governments (like senior managers) have to be seen to do something and almost anything will do especially if it distracts from the real problems they should be fixing, and (C) vanity. And that, of course, is all that matters. Bugger the environment etc. etc.

Not that any work is likely to be done for 4 or 5 years. There is still to be (another?) public consultation followed by parliamentary approval. Add to that all the planning decisions, every one of which you can be sure will be appealed by someone, causing even further delay. Meanwhile the whole of west London — already a disaster jungle of concrete — has another Sword of Damocles (in addition to that of HS2) hanging over it.

So there is still plenty of chance the third runway will never happen, and even by the time it can happen some people will have got the message that (a) it will be an environmental disaster (wherever it is sited) and (b) we really should not need to be flying people around the world the way they do.

As someone commented yesterday, we suddenly seem to be building big things — most of which we really don’t need (eg. runway three, HS2). Moreover we cannot afford them — we have no money, at least so we’re always being told. Nor do we have the labour to either build or operate these facilities as unemployment is at historic low levels. So where do we find the cash and the workers? Oh yes, of course: inward investment and immigrants, neither of which will happen after Brexit.

There is still time for common sense to prevail, but don’t hold your breath.

Gawdelpus!

Climate Change and Airport Expansion

In a comment piece entitled Climate change means no airport expansion — at Heathrow or anywhere in yesterday’s Guardian, George Monbiot has got his knife out again.

His thesis is that:

The inexorable logic that should rule out new sources of oil, gas and coal also applies to the expansion of airports. In a world seeking to prevent climate breakdown, there is no remaining scope for extending infrastructure that depends on fossil fuels … While most sectors can replace fossil fuels with other sources, this is not the case for aviation … Aviation means kerosene.

Essentially The UK cannot meet it’s climate change commitments now and building another airport runway (whether at Heathrow, Gatwick or anywhere else) is only going to compound the problem.

We have to fly less — for both business and leisure. Business has to wake up to the fact that it doesn’t have to fly people around the world — or even drive them around the country — to meetings. We all have to wake up to the fact that we cannot afford — environmentally, and probably soon financially — to jet off around the world on holiday several times a year.

I know I keep saying it, but it really is time to wake up and smell the coffee at home!

[And no, Monbiot doesn’t make this stuff up. There’s a fully referenced and linked version of the article at http://www.monbiot.com/2016/10/19/the-flight-of-reason/.]