environment

Your Interesting Links

There’s a lot in this month’s edition so let’s get straight in …

Science & Medicine

Medics are now saying that arthroscopic surgery for degenerative knee problems (ie. essentially arthritis) does not actually do any much good.

[TRIGGER WARNING] Breaking the taboo of talking about miscarriage.

Another new study shows that, against expectation, women who source online and use abortion drugs do so with very little need for emergency medical help.

And yet another on reproductive medicine … It seems the folk contraceptive “Thunder God Vine” (Tripterygium wilfordii, above) really does prevent conception.

On the physics of having a shit.

More new research has found that daily small doses of cannabis can slow brain decline with ageing – at least in mice.

And here’s yet another instance where it seems we’ve had it all wrong … apparently eating cheese does not raise the risk of heart attack or stroke.

It has long been thought that the way we categorise colours is cultural, but surprisingly it appears to be genetic.

Sexuality

Porn is allegedly having a “terrifying impact” on men. Girl on the Net lifts the lid and finds the evidence rather thin and attitudes biased.

Is the “Dildo of Damocles” daunting? What does/will happen when sex toys connect to the internet?

Environment

It is estimated that the Fukushima accident gave everyone on the planet radiation exposure equivalent to a single X-ray – although unsurprisingly those in Fukushima received rather more it was unlikely to be more than two year’s worth of background radiation, so tiny in the overall scheme of things.

Hedges are as important for the environment as trees, at least in cities.

In another non-obvious finding, research is showing that beaver dams keep streams cool.

History, Archaeology & Anthropology

There are some amazing things happening in palaeoanthropology at the moment, not least that researchers have discovered how to extract DNA from the soil around archaeological sites.

Another of those amazing pieces of palaeoanthropology is the number and age of the Homo naledi finds in South Africa.

At the other end of Africa, a 4000-year-old funeral garden has been discovered in Egypt.

In a recent, and rather more modern, find a rare medieval text printed by William Caxton has been discovered lurking in University of Reading archives.

One of our favourite London bloggers, diamond geezer, visits the Parisian Catacombs.

Finally in this section, another of our favourite London bloggers, IanVists, explores an abandoned railway tunnel used by the BBC in WW2.

London

Which brings us nicely to London itself … Londonist suggests some of London’s more secret places to visit.

Meanwhile Time Out tells us nine things we mostly didn’t know about Euston Station.

Lifestyle & Personal Development

The Guardian magazine on Saturday 27 May featured Laura Dodsworth’s upcoming book Manhood: The Bare Reality in which 100 men talk about manhood through the lens of “me and my penis” as well as having their manhood photographed.
This a follow-on to Bare Reality: 100 Women, Their Breasts, Their Stories
Pre-order Manhood: The Bare Reality from the publishers Pinter & Martin or from Amazon.
[Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this book and there’s a little bit of me in the article, although unless you know you’ll never find it.]

Following which here’s Lee Kynaston in the Telegraph on male pubic hair grooming. My only question is “Why?”.

The key to happiness is not knowing oneself, but knowing how others see us.

But then scientists and philosophers also doubt the ancient claim that vigorous self-examination makes you a better person.

Food & Drink

WFT is alkaline water? Oh, I see, it’s no different to what comes out of the tap.

If you like sushi, you might no longer as its popularity has brought rise in parasitic infections.

People

I wasn’t quite sure where to put this next item, but it is one for the railway buffs amongst us … Geoff Marshall (no relation) and Vicki Pipe are doing All the Stations: They’re travelling to every train station in mainland UK, documenting and videoing as they go. Their videos are all on the All the Stations channel on YouTube; watch the introductory video first to see what they’re planning.
[Geoff Marshall has twice held the official record for travelling the whole London Underground in the fastest time, so he had to be up for another challenge!]

Shock, Horror, Humour

And very finally here are some stories of what happens when scientists take research specimens through airport security.

More in a month’s time.

Wind Turbines

Those who have an interest in energy and the environment might like to look at this article on wind turbines from the Spectator.

If what the article says is correct (and I haven’t checked the assertions) then it supports what I have long maintained: that wind turbines for power generation are a sideshow, and potentially dangerous one at that.

Windmills D1-D4 (Thornton Bank)

The assertion is that globally they produce less than 1% of power consumption – hardly impressive given all the hype. Moreover, and this is what has always worried me most, constructing them uses so much steel, rare earths and cement – all of which have to be mined, refined and transported – that they can effectively never break even environmentally (at least that’s my extrapolation of what the author is saying).

Now the author, Matt Ridley, admits he has an interest in coal, although he’s not proposing coal as a substitute for wind turbines. What he suggests is that we should invest in gas powered energy generation in the immediate term, pending the development and construction of nuclear. I disagree with him on the former as he is advocating fracking. But I agree about nuclear, although that too is hardly immune from the environmental impact of mining, steel smelting etc. And that’s leaving aside the problem of nuclear waste, which I discussed a while back.

As has been obvious for many a long year, there is no good solution except to drastically cut back on power consumption. And I’m as guilty as anyone of failing at that.

Wasps

It is that time of year when we start seeing black and yellow flying insects about. Yes, summer is wasp season.

There are essentially three wasp species in the UK. The two we see most often are the ones most people despise: the small ones the Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris, and German Wasp, Vespula germanica. Both are definitely yellow and black. To all intents and purposes they look identical (if you really want to see the difference you’ll need to get up close and personal with them – most of you won’t want to).


(L) Common Wasp and (R) German Wasp

The queens (which are quite large) are out at the moment, starting their nests. In a few weeks time there will be the smaller workers around; these are the ones which are the pest of picnics and alfresco fun. Come September their job is done: they’ve raised new queens, who will mate and hibernate to repeat the cycle next year. So now the workers are at a loose end, and go hunting anything sugary. They’ll die off with the first very cold nights and frosts.

I understand just how annoying wasps can be, especially if you have a nest nearby. But please leave them alone! They are wonderful predators of other insects, which they need to feed their grubs. Without them we would be knee deep in creepy-crawlies – an average nest can consume several tons of insects in a single summer! They also have a minor role in pollinating plants.

By August/September a mature nest can have anything between 5000 and 25000 wasps in residence. This not something you want to go poking at even with a barge pole! Having said that the nests are amazing structures, built essentially from paper.


Wasp nest

Destroying a wasp nest is rarely worth the effort. The nests, once dormant, have low humidity and are essentially just paper. Removal of the wasp nest will not prevent future queens nesting in the same area. If pesticides are used on the nest then you may contaminate other areas to no purpose, and dust based pesticides tend to remain active for years, so might knock down future queen wasps, or indeed other insects that you’d want to keep.

The main thing that worries people about wasps is their sting. A wasp uses its sting for killing prey, but it can also use it very effectively for defending itself. An ordinary uncomplicated sting contains an absolutely tiny quantity of venom (a pinhead less than the size of the full stops on this page!) which is injected deep into the skin. So treating the skin surface with almost anything is going to have very little effect (except maybe psychologically). Probably the best course is to use an antihistamine ointment and/or an oral antihistamine tablet. But … if the victim becomes pale and feels unwell with giddiness and nausea, get medical advice immediately as a very few people can suffer anaphylactic shock which can be fatal.

The third wasp species you might encounter is the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, although these are very much less common that the two wasps mentioned above (despite years of nature watching, I have never knowingly seen one in the wild). And they are roughly twice the size of a a “normal” wasp and very definitely yellow and brown.


European Hornets

(If it is yellow and black, it’s a wasp. If it’s yellow and brown and large it is a hornet – and you’re very lucky to see it! If it is furry, it’s a bee of some kind.)

Hornets follow the same life cycle as wasps, but are generally more docile and less likely to sting (though you’ll know about it if they do get you). They are relatively uncommon, especially in cities, preferring wooded environments. The only thing against hornets is that they can predate honey bee colonies.

There are many other species of wasps around the UK. Most are solitary rather than social, often parasitic predators and they don’t sting. The other social wasps are generally uncommon, although the Norwegian wasp, Dolichovespula norvegica, is more prevalent in the north of the UK. There are also a couple of very uncommon non-native hornet species in the UK and there are scare stories about “killer wasps” in the media from time to time – generally these can be ignored (although this could change over time).

So unless you are one of the very few, unlucky, people who are allergic to their stings (when you do need to worry) the moral is: please leave wasps alone! If you have a wasps’ nest, treasure it! Wasps are wonderful predators, superb engineers and they’re mostly harmless unless you start threatening them.

Bidet

Michele Hanson in yesterday’s Guardian bemoans the fact that “prudish Brits” don’t have a bidet in their bathroom, and most (especially the blokes) wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

I agree. We don’t have bidets. And most Brits wouldn’t be seen dead using one. Why not?

I’ll tell Hanson why not. Because most of us have pathetically small bathrooms that you struggle to get a bath, loo and handbasin in. That’s why.

When we had our bathroom rebuilt a few years ago we struggled for a long time with how best to use the tiny space. Out went the bath and in went a shower cubicle. The handbasin was moved and a towel rail installed. Loo and radiator stayed in position. This made a tiny extra amount of space, but not enough room for a bidet. Despite trying hard there just is no way, short of removing a wall, to accommodate a bidet. And there is still almost no room as the space is about half the size of the average box room – cats cannot be swung.

To the majority of Brits, a bidet is like Europe: it’s either for the poncey well-to-do or its foreign. And God forfend we have either of those! Thank you, we’ll remain insular and isolated in out tiny little island/bathroom space.

The solution? Maybe these all-singing-all-washing-all-drying Japanese-style toilets are the way to go, but at the moment they’re way, way too expensive.

But that raises the question of whether a quick wash and dry is more environmentally friendly than 8-10-12 sheets of bog paper. Interesting one that.

Taxing Meat

Could a tax on meat help us save the planet?

That’s the interesting question posed by Simon Fairlie in a Guardian article a few days ago.

It is, I think, now becoming widely accepted that fattening livestock for human consumption is a very inefficient use of feed and water – and thus environmentally unsound. One way to reduce consumption of meat would be to tax it, perhaps treating it as a luxury item.

As usual here’s the tl;dr summary of quotes from the article.

Feeding cereals and beans to animals is an inefficient and extravagant way to produce human food … there is a limited amount of grazing land … the world will be hard-pressed to supply a predicted population of 9 billion people with a diet as rich in meat as the industrialised world currently enjoys, and … it’s not a very healthy diet anyway. [Additionally] … livestock [generate] 14.5% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
… … …
Meat taxes have been proposed … the ideal solution might be not to tax meat itself, but to tax fossil fuels … meat production would decline as a consequence – partly because nitrogen fertilisers … for growing animal feed would become more expensive, and partly because there would be increased competition for grazing land.
… … …
Most proposals [for meat taxes] foresee different rates of tax applied to different animals … a pig fed on food waste and crop residues has a tiny fraction of the environmental impact of a pig fed on soya and grains.

If we were to have a meat tax, it would … be simpler to have a flat rate for all meat; and in the UK and the rest of the EU there is an oven-ready way of doing that … VAT … It is hard to think of a more seamless way of introducing consumers to the concept that meat … is a luxury item they will have to pay more for.
… … …
[Another] aspect of applying VAT to meat [is that] small livestock farms with an annual turnover of less than the £85,000 threshold could be exempt. They would benefit from an advantage of up to 20% over supermarkets for any meat they sell direct to consumers … [this] might help reverse the drastic decline in the number of small family farms, and give a boost to new entrants into farming. It would also provide a fillip to local economies, with farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, urban food co-ops, small farms in the green belt, conservation graziers … likely to benefit.

It’s an intriguing idea, but one which I don’t see happening. The consumer in the developed world is far too wedded to meat as a staple food to accept what will be seen as an arbitrary price hike for no gain. But then again why not scrap income tax and charge VAT (or equivalent) on everything?

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.