Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Archive for the ‘dangerous fossil fuels’ Category

Natural gas

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Have you ever wondered they call it natural gas, anyway? Is it anything more than an attempt to invoke association between the word natural and a “clean and green”, ”good” source of energy? We don’t refer to natural coal or natural oil, do we? How about natural uranium? Well, granted, the latter term is not uncommon, in a different context.

Can you imagine the outcry if the energy industry started marketing their energy systems as natural oil, or natural coal? It would be derided as a misleading stunt by the energy companies (not to mention the Amory Lovins brigade), to give their environmentally dangerous fuels a clean image!

Just to make it really clear to everyone what it really is, perhaps we should refer to it as fossil gas?

Written by Luke Weston

April 2, 2008 at 9:01 am

The nuclear energy “live debate”

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A great debate over the importance of nuclear energy as an important source of clean energy is currently happening over at Green Options and promises to be exceptionally broad ranging. Rod Adams of Atomic Insights  is starring in the debate, along with Matt Simmons, a sustainability consultant and engineer who writes regularly for TalkClimateChange, who is taking the argument against nuclear energy.

It looks like a very interesting debate to keep an eye on.

Not to be too judgemental – but personally, I think there’s a recurring theme to Matt’s posts thus far: combined-cycle dangerous fossil fuel turbines, combined dangerous fossil fuel heat and power cogeneration, and the dangerous fossil fuels oracle or shill, depending on who you ask, Amory Lovins.

If nuclear energy costs only 5% more than the combined-cycle dangerous fossil fuel turbine, which discharges its dangerous fossil fuel waste straight into the atmosphere, why would you reject nuclear energy?

I’ll be watching this one with interest.

Anti-nuclear photo of the day.

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I found this interesting photo headlining a post on an established emotionally-motivated full-of-sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing anti-nuclear activism blog today. I won’t mention it by name, but I’m sure you know the one I mean.

Look – it’s clearly obvious! Simpsons-esque concrete hyperboloidal cooling towers – it’s a Nuclear plant!

Nuclear power – obviously equates to dead people! Vast numbers of people, all dead because of the evils of the nuclear plant!

That is, until the reader notices the smoke-belching stacks clearly present in the photograph. Nuclear plants don’t have those!

Unless I’m very much mistaken, that looks like a coal-fired power plant to me.

Written by Luke Weston

December 17, 2007 at 5:27 am

Ridiculous double standards.

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Whilst perusing the Atomic Insights blog this evening, I learned something new, and quite astonishing to me.

If I may quote the following from Rod’s excellent blog:

“Unfortunately, that facet of the competition is almost completely skewed since building a coal fired power plant is not defined as a “major federal action” under the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act, but issuing a nuclear power plant license is.

That means that a coal plant, though having many permitting requirements, does not require the submission or approval of a federal Environmental Impact Statement. That bit of legal nuance was the work of the well funded team that opposed Calvert Cliffs. They managed to persuade a court that the thermal discharges of a nuclear heated steam plant were somehow of great concern while the thermal and hazardous gaseous emissions of a coal fired steam plant never even get a federal review.”

I find that really quite horrifying. This sort of legislative nonsense isn’t protecting the environment – it’s encouraging the most environmentally destructive energy systems in existence, discouraging their clean alternatives, and really serving nobody other than the commercial interests in dangerous fossil fuels.

Really, those responsible for such a ridiculously unbalanced playing field for regulating the well-understood environmental impact of energy systems, those responsible for such legislation are essentially just about complacent in the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people in the US alone each year.

This has to stop!

Written by Luke Weston

September 26, 2007 at 10:18 am

Nuclear Madness: Chapter 1

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Yes, I’m referring to the book.

 “…we can no longer afford to entrust our lives, and the lives and health of future generations, to politicians, bureaucrats, “experts”, or scientific specialists, because all too often their objectivity is compromised.”

Oh dear oh dear. In other words, any scientist or engineer, physician or physicist, who potentially disagrees with us, must clearly be a shill.

But it doesn’t really matter, fundamentally. Ultimately, if a physicist or chemist says this or that, ultimately, what they say is tested against the physical characteristics of reality. What scientists say, by rights, doesn’t matter. What physical reality does is what matters. Nature can’t be paid off by the big scary corporations and lobby groups.

 “It (nuclear energy) is also obviously extremely unsafe, as opposed to the fallacious claims made by the nuclear industry…”

The empirical observation is that it is safe. He-says-she-says doesn’t matter.

“The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee exposed nearly 500 patients with leukemia and other cancers to exceptionally high levels of radiation from radioactive caesium and cobalt, including a six-year-old boy.”

The infamous human radioactivity experiments are potentially a great topic of discussion for the people that want to convince the public that human applications of radioactivity are intrinsically evil. I’m not quite sure what relevance the infamous and controversial research has to nuclear energy, but reading the above passage, one thing immediately stands out.

Thousands of patients with cancers are exposed to exceptionally high doses of radiation, from radionuclides of Caesium and cobalt, in hospitals every day, even today. And it saves their lives.

  “…the long-term medical consequences of radiation were just beginning to appear, in the form of an increased rate of leukemia among Japanese atomic bomb survivors.”

These are the medical consequences of very high doses of whole-body ionizing radiation exposure. That these grave medical consequences of very large doses of ionizing radiation exist, and what they are, has never, ever, been in any dispute. Very high doses of ionizing radiation kill people.

“Nonbiodegradable, and some virtually potent forever, these toxic nuclear materials…”

Radionuclides are non-biodegradable! My god.

If one synthesises a biodegradable polymer, such as a lactide-derived polyester, and labels it with say Tritium or Carbon-14, the radioactive polymer is still biodegradable.

All radionuclides intrinsically, inevitably, decay over time. This is one of the most intrinsic and fundamental aspects of the phenomenon of radioactivity.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzo[a]pyrene, are strongly mutagenic, and correspondingly carcinogenic and teratogenic, and exposure to these compounds in the environment has the potential to cause increased incidences of cancer, decades into the future, and leave future generations with legacies of genetic disease, birth defects and so forth, as a result of mutation of genes reproductive cells in generations exposed to these pollutants.

This is the legacy we leave to future generations with the continued use, and expanded use, of dangerous fossil fuels.

These persistent organic pollutants in dangerous fossil fuel waste are not biodegradable, and their nuclei are for the most part, stable. They do not break down over time, or decay. At all.

“Each 1 GW nuclear (power) reactor contains as much long-lived radioactive material (“fallout”) as would be produced by 1000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.”

Radioactive material is not “fallout” until is is dispersed in the atmosphere in the form of dispersed dust, volatile and particulate contamination. Arguably, the Chernobyl disaster created radioactive “fallout” contamination, kind of analogous to that produced by a nuclear weapon.

But in practice, what circumstances are required for such dispersion to be created with any other nuclear reactor?

“A “meltdown”, in which the fissioning nuclear fuel overheats and melts, penetrating the steel and concrete structures that encase it, could release a reactor’s radioactive contents into the atmosphere…”

Can a “meltdown” destroy the steel reactor vessel of a nuclear reactor? Theory shows it’s extremely doubtful, and experience, at Three Mile Island, says no. Even if the pressure vessel is destroyed, could the massive reinforced concrete containment building be destroyed by hot, partially molten, fuel? For all practical intents and purposes, such an idea is regarded as impossible.

 “One need not be a scientist or nuclear engineer to take part in this important debate; in fact, an over-specialised approach tends to confuse the issue. The basic questions involved ultimately go beyond the technical problems related to reactor safety and radioactive waste management.”

What? In other words, is Caldicott trying to tell us that the science and engineering does not matter? These are the most fundamental aspects of the debate. On a foundation of scientific and technological fact, the complex political and social debate over nuclear technology can proceed in a sensible, informed manner.

“How can we ensure the longevity of the social institutions responsible for perpetuating that isolation?” (the isolation of radioactive waste from the environment over the long term.)  “And what moral right do we have to burden our progeny with this poisonous legacy…

Social institutions do not perpetuate the longevity of that isolation. Half a kilometer of solid rock perpetuates it. We know from history, from the nuclear fission waste under the rock at Oklo, and from, say, the great Pyramids, that these great structures of rock will carry our legacy over the time frames required.

Permanent geological repositories,  such as that under construction by Sweden’s SKB, deal with the radioactive waste permanantly, and once it’s sealed, it’s dealt with, safe forever. These repositories require no monitoring or maintainence by future generations.

Well, that’s Chapter 1, and the Introduction, covered.

Written by Luke Weston

August 8, 2007 at 1:29 am

The latest news in dangerous fossil fuels

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SEVENTY Chinese miners were trapped yesterday after a coal mine flooded in central Henan province, the state Xinhua news agency reported, saying rescue efforts were under way.

The miners were working at the Zhijian coal mine in Shanxian county, about 200km west of the provincial capital Zhengzhou, when they were trapped, a county official told Xinhua.

The mine, built in 1958, is state-owned.

China’s mines are considered the most dangerous in the world. More than 4700 workers were killed last year, according to official figures, although independent labour groups put deaths at up to 20,000 annually.

Of course, comparing China’s coal industry to the Western world’s is like comparing Chernobyl to an AP1000. So I won’t make that comparison.

But still, in this day and age, people don’t need to be dying in this way. It really is a tragedy.

Written by Luke Weston

July 29, 2007 at 3:03 pm


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