Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Sane Perspective on The Nuclear Problem in Japan

From a friend of my brother-in-law, a nuclear engineer for a national defense contractor:

Several people have called asking for my perspective on the events in Japan; it seems appropriate that I share some written thoughts and perspectives. You can share this with others if you desire.

First of all, it is important to keep an overall perspective on this situation. This is one of the most devastating natural disasters in our lifetimes. At last count, there were approximately 9000 people dead and 12,000 still missing. The remaining people are cold, hungry, and without power. Unfortunately, natural disasters tend to be high drama when they happen; the recovery garners less public interest. A nuclear accident, on the other hand, stays high drama for a long time. I don’t blame anyone for this – it is just basic human psychology, but it is important that we as rational people don’t allow our fear and ignorance to contribute to misdirection of concern.

Let me provide some perspective on engineering for disasters (this is one of the classes I teach at University of Idaho as well as at work). Power plants are some of the largest and most complicated systems of machines ever made. This is true for hydro-electric, coal, natural gas, nuclear, and geothermal plants alike – but even more so for nuclear power stations. (I don’t include wind farms and solar plants because they are only capable of producing very small amounts of electricity for short periods of time and won’t ever be a significant factor in meeting the world’s energy demand.)

It’s important to recognize that each of us uses more electricity today that our parents did and our parents use more than their parents did. We do this by choice. Every time we plug in a cell phone, iPad, computer, TV, etc, we place a demand on the electrical distribution system. This demand either has to be met or the electrical grid shut off. Since people don’t like blackouts (and since they are dangerous), electrical utility companies continue to add more generating capacity by building more power plants. This increase in demand has also kept many nuclear power stations on line beyond their design life spans.

When we design power plants, we have to establish a basis for how much force the plants can withstand and how long they need to last – fundamentally for how safe to make them. The safer we make them, the more expensive they are and the more everyone pays for their electricity. Consequently we do not design power plants to be as safe as they can be. We (engineers, companies, governments and society at large) accept a certain amount of risk as a tradeoff between the cost and the benefit of the plant.

We can understand the concept of risk as the mathematical product of the probability that a particular event will happen and the consequence of that event. Risk = Probability X Consequence. So something that isn’t very likely to happen, but produces a very negative result would get the same attention in the design as something that is very likely to happen but produces a relatively benign event.

There is risk in all forms of power generation.

Let me provide a few examples and then we’ll get back to Japan. In the last few years there have been several power plant accidents around the world. Last summer there was a major disaster at a hydroelectric plant in Russia. It killed 69 people. There was a natural gas explosion in Pennsylvania in 2009 that killed 5 people and another in 2010 at a power plant in Connecticut that killed 6 people. Coal fired power plants release more radioactivity and toxins to the environment than nuclear; in 2008, a coal plant in Tennessee leaked a billion gallons of toxic sludge and contaminated over 300 acres. Fatalities and damage to the environment happen in power plant accidents routinely and the events barely make the news – unless it happens at a nuclear plant.

The reactor accidents in Japan are bad. The economic cost of the cleanup is going to be staggering – in fact it is possible that this event will start the end of the commercial nuclear industry. However, the risk of anyone actually dying is very low. What this accident really shows is that a 40 year old nuclear power plant, that was not built to withstand a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and a 30 foot tsunami at the same time, is still a safer form of energy than coal, hydro, or natural gas. But somehow, if not a single person dies from this accident – an accident caused by a natural disaster so catastrophic that 20,000 people die from the disaster itself, we’ll walk away thinking we learned that nuclear is unsafe. We’ll get the wrong message because almost no one understands what is happening, the people who are doing their best to report on the events lack even basic understanding of the words they are using, and the rare people who do understand what is happening don’t have the communication skills to explain it.

OK, so what is happening in Japan? There are six boiling water nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station. Each of these plants is designed to pump distilled water into a reactor, boil the water, use the steam to turn a turbine (think of blowing on a pinwheel) to make electricity, cool the steam back into water and pump it back into the reactor where the process repeats over and over. When the fuel in the reactor becomes inefficient at producing heat it is moved to a storage pool and replaced with fresh fuel. The spent fuel will cool off over several years and become less radioactive until it can be removed from the pool and is either chemically reprocessed or stored in dry casks.

When the earthquake hit, the power station did what it was designed to do. It shut down. When the tsunami hit, the sea water flooded the area and shorted out the electrical distribution systems. With the reactor off and no ability to get power from another plant a nuclear reactor normally uses back up diesel generators to power the pumps that circulate the cooling water through the reactor and spent fuel pools. Unfortunately, the diesels were also damaged by the tsunami.

This left the reactors in a position to not be able to circulate cooling water, allowed a buildup of heat and hydrogen gas. (When water is in the presence of some forms of radiation it will separate into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen. If the water cannot be circulated and the concentrations of hydrogen and oxygen gas built up, and some form of ignition occurs – say a spark or other heat source – the hydrogen and oxygen will recombine to form water again. This process releases energy – it is exothermic. ) This happened several times in the Fukushima plants and there were several hydrogen explosions that further damaged the buildings.

These events can be easily misunderstood when you hear about them in the news.
“An explosion occurred at an uncontrolled and overheating nuclear power station that is now leaking radiation” communicates a very different message than “A power station had a power outage and made some water” but they mean exactly the same thing. For the people who get to repair and clean up these plants, these are significant events; to the general public they are not. Let’s address the radiation part of the story and see why.

Radiation comes in several types. Generally what is being discussed during this event is a type called gamma radiation so I’ll provide a little background on this one type. Gamma radiation is like sunlight. It is an energy wave. It can’t be blown by the wind or leak like water. Just like sunlight, too much is not good for us and increases the chance of getting cancer. Like sunlight, in the right quantities it is actually helpful. Gamma rays and x-rays are only distinguishable by where they originate. In other words, getting a dental x-ray is the same thing to your body as being exposed to radiation from a nuclear reactor. Every human on earth is exposed to gamma rays every day from birth to death. In fact, each of us is naturally radioactive – we are ourselves sources of radiation. This is because radioactivity (the characteristic of something that gives off radiation) is quite natural. Of all the elements in our bodies, one of them is potassium (K-40) which we get from potatoes, bananas, etc.

So how much is too much? Let me try to help with a perspective again. The biological effect of radiation exposure is measured (in our country) in units called ‘rem’. A typical person receives 0.3 rem a year from natural sources and about another 0.1 rem from consumer products and medical procedures. By law, a person in the nuclear industry can receive about ten times more than that - up to 5 rem a year . This is safe, but the nuclear industry also works to keep radiation exposure as low as they reasonably can. For instance, in my entire career I’ve received a cumulative dose of 0.25 rem. If you fly on an airplane, you are closer to the sun so you receive more radiation – about 0.1 rem per 1000 miles of flight. A lethal dose of radiation of radiation is approximately 500 rem in a single dose or about 100 times the legal limit.

So when you hear about “abnormal radiation levels” or “radiation leaking” etc you have to keep it in perspective. People who get on planes to fly away from Japan will likely receive more radiation from flying than if they had stayed in Japan in the first place. I know radiation is scary to people, because it can’t be perceived by our senses and become of all the myths we’ve been exposed to. A radiation level that is “100 times greater than normal” doesn’t necessarily mean anything scary at all – if “normal” is a low number – which it usually is. For instance, if a typical radiation exposure rate outside a nuclear reactor is 0.001 rem per hour and it’s a now “a hundred times” above normal it would now be 0.1 rem per hour. You could sit there for two or three hours and get the same dose you’d get flying across country without even being concerned.

I know there are people getting worried about radiation exposure on the west coast of the US, so let me try another perspective. I work for the navy. When we got word of the events in Japan, we sent one of our nuclear powered aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan, straight through the radioactive plume to Japan to provide humanitarian support. We voluntarily sucked up the radioactivity into the ventilation system, cleaned it up and are still there trying to help the people of Japan. Some of the people who know the most about this stuff are voluntarily going right into it to help. The radiation levels in the Fukushima plant are dangerous to people inside the plant, but they know this and are trained to deal with the risks (the highest cumulative dose I’ve read about to any of the workers is 10 rem or about 50 times lower than a lethal dose).

If you wanted to limit your exposure to sunlight, you’d restrict your time in the sun, move to a place where there is less sunlight and wear clothing that covers your body when you do have to be in the sun. In radiation protection language we call this time, distance, and shielding. The same principles of time, distance, and shielding apply to this situation. For instance, since California is about 5000 miles away from Japan even a lethal dose in Japan would likely be unmeasureable in the United States. (If you want the math it goes like this: Let’s say the radiation level a mile away from Fukushima was outrageously high – say 500 rem/hr. What is the radiation level in California – 5000 miles away? It would be 500(12/50002) or 0.00002 rem/hr –which is too low to measure.)

I understand people’s concerns but I’d advise you to stay away from the news, if you can. The poor reporters are just not equipped to be able to explain this event. They consistently say things that aren’t true because they don’t understand the words they are using. They are also scared themselves. If you do feel the need to follow the events, the IAEA website isn’t bad:

Let me summarize a few things. The reactor accident in Japan is the result of a natural disaster that was worse than what the plant was designed to withstand. It’s a bad accident and is going to be wildly expensive to clean up (cost has always been the problem with nuclear). I don’t expect anyone to die from the events going on in the power plant; I don’t believe there is any significant risk to people anywhere, but especially not outside the plant itself; I believe our focus, concern, and attention as a society should be placed on supporting the victims of the natural disaster; Since I have the skills and knowledge to actually help with the nuclear end of the crisis, I am volunteering to go and help. I don’t suspect the Navy will take me up on my offer, (we have a team there already) but if I can go I will.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Yes He Did...

Obama has made it no secret that he wants to take the United States down some notches. His insufferable vendetta against the United States has led to 'necessarily' skyrocketing energy costs. He has bowed and cowtowed to nearly every tyrant known to the world, while at the same time dissing long-time traditional allies of the United States. And now, his administration has singlehandedly decreased your purchasing power:

US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner shocked global markets by revealing that Washington is “quite open” to Chinese proposals for the gradual development of a global reserve currency run by the International Monetary Fund.

The dollar plunged instantly against the euro, yen, and sterling as the comments flashed across trading screens. David Bloom, currency chief at HSBC, said the apparent policy shift amounts to an earthquake in geo-finance.

“The mere fact that the US Treasury Secretary is even entertaining thoughts that the dollar may cease being the anchor of the global monetary system has caused consternation,” he said.

Mr Geithner later qualified his remarks, insisting that the dollar would remain the “world’s dominant reserve currency … for a long period of time” but the seeds of doubt have been sown.

So... How's that hopenchange working for you?

Did I call it, or what?

From a tweet I made yesterday..

And lo and behold, as if on queue...

Ain't it a caution when truth is stranger than hyperbole.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Regarding Un-Holy Congregations and the Church of Global Warming

In a never ending quest of how best to sell the lie:

Climate Change Rings "Truer" Than Global Warming
American skepticism about whether the world's weather is changing depends partly on wording. More believe in "climate change" than "global warming," a new study by the University of Michigan shows.

Three of four people, or 74%, thought the problem was real when it was referred to as climate change, while 68% thought it was real when it was called global warming, according to questions posed by U-M psychologists on a RAND-conducted survey of 2,267 U.S. adults..

"Wording matters," study co-author Jonathon Schuldt said in announcing the findings, which will be published in the upcoming issue of Public Opinion Quarterly. "While global warming focuses attention on temperature increases, climate change focuses attention on more general changes," he said. "Thus, an unusually cold day may increase doubts about global warming more so than about climate change."
What is really interesting is how this study breaks down by political affiliation:
The study found the differences were due almost entirely to participants who identified themselves as Republicans. While 60% of Republicans said they thought climate change was real, only 44% said they believed in the reality of global warming. In contrast, 86% of Democrats thought climate change was a serious problem, regardless of wording.

"It might be a ceiling effect, given their high level of belief," co-author Sara Konrath, a U-M psychologist, speculated. "Or it could be that Democrats' beliefs about global climate change might be more crystallized, and as a result, more protected from subtle manipulations."
So, democrats are more 'protected' from 'subtle' manipulations. Like those manipulations from IPCC and East Anglia college.. you know, subtle manipulations, like admissions of fudging the data upon which much of the global warming--err climate change studies are based.

Yeah. Those subtle manipulations.

The real difference between democrats and republicans with respect to climate change is not necessarily which percentage of which political bent believes that some sort of climate change is happening. Rather, the real difference between democrats and republicans lies in how each group attributes the cause of that change, and the underlying motives behind those assumptions.

According to the study above, 64 percent of Republicans (supposedly conservative) believe that the climate is changing. I also happen to believe that the climate is changing. The Earth's climate has never been stagnant, and has been changing since the Good Lord created it. The $64,000,000,000 question that the study fails to ask is whether 64% of Republicans believe that anthroprogenic activity is responsible for the climate changing; or, for that matter, whether climate change is really that catastrophic of an event. An educated guess tells me that the percentage on both counts is very, very low.

On the other hand, 86% of democrats (supposedly liberal) believe in climate change. And it is another educated guess that the vast majority of that 86% believe that man is causing it. East Anglia, and all other contradictory data be damned. To the liberal democrat, climate change, specifically the concept of anthroprogenic climate change is not as much scientific fact as it is a matter of godless dogma, held on to with every bit of zealotry as Christians hang on to the notion of the Second Coming of Christ. But the zealotries on each side are played out with very different motivations, which I will explain in the following paragraphs.

As religion is a vehicle through which Man navigates the world so as to attain a one-ness with the Divine with the goal of a glorious afterlife shared with the Divine, global warming/climate change is a vehicle utilized by the god-less Left in a vain attempt to attain a socialist utopia here on Earth. As religion is the great equalizer between rich and poor in the afterlife, global warming is seen as a great equalizer to legitimize the vast redistribution of wealth between rich and poor, both individually and collectively, and to achieve what in reality is unachievable; the socialist utopia of a classless, milquetoast society, egalitarian in both resource and outcome. God-less democrats, disillusioned by the non-prospect of Divine reward, (as there is no true belief in the Divine), attempt themselves to play the Divine, with disastrous consequences.

Even the so-called "religious left" have no real interest in the afterlife, or even in the Divine. Oh, they may call themselves Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran, or Unitarian, but just like the Global Warmers (oftentimes, the two are interchangeable), the 'religious' left utilize religion as a vehicle not to lead people to the Divine so as to achieve their Heavenly reward, but rather to vainly attempt to achieve heaven on earth, forgetting that Christ Himself said, "My Kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36). To the Left, religion, like Climate Change propaganda, is utilized as but a cloak of legitimacy to advance an un-godly agenda antithetical to which they purport to champion.

So it is without wonder that a majority of democrats will hang on to the hideous lie that is anthroprogenic global warming, no matter the moniker. As I stated before, when the Divine is cast aside, man attempts to fill the void; with invariably disastrous consequences.

Wednesday Hero Blogburst 3-9-2011

Senior Airman Nicholas J. Alden and Airman 1st Class Zachary R. Cuddeback
March 2, 2011
U.S. Navy

On March 2, a gunman walked into a Frankfurt, Germany airport and shot four people, killing two of them. They were:

Senior Airman Nicholas J. Alden
Senior Airman Nicholas J. Alden who was 25-years-old from Williamston, S.C. He was assigned to the 48th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Lakenheath in England.

Airman 1st Class Zachary R. Cuddeback
Airman 1st Class Zachary R. Cuddeback of Stanardsville, Va. He was assigned to the 86th Vehicle Readiness Squadron at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Both Men were being deployed to Afghanistan. I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and families these Men left behind.

Information Was Found On And Copied From

These brave men and women sacrifice so much in their lives so that others may enjoy the freedoms we get to enjoy everyday. For that, I am proud to call them Hero.
We Should Not Only Mourn These Men And Women Who Died, We Should Also Thank God That Such People Lived

This post is part of the Wednesday Hero Blogroll. For more information about Wednesday Hero, or if you would like to post it on your site, you can go here.
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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Malfeasance R Us.

Not only is there a plethora of doublespeak in this administration, but apparently, an abundance of double-counting things that weren’t really there in the first place:

During a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) admitted to double-counting in the Obamacare budget.

In her first appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee since the health-care law passed, Kathleen Sebelius responded to a line of questioning by Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois about whether $500 billion in Medicare cuts were used to sustain the program or pay for the law.

“There is an issue here on the budget because your own actuary has said you can’t double-count,” said Shimkus. “You can’t count — they’re attacking Medicare on the CR when their bill, your law, cut $500 billion from Medicare.”

He continued: “Then you’re also using the same $500 billion to what? Say your funding health care. Your own actuary says you can’t do both. […] What’s the $500 billion in cuts for? Preserving Medicare or funding the health-care law?

Sebelius’ reply? “Both.”

Why am I not surprised? That’s the whole thing about this bunch. NOTHING surprises me anymore. NOTHING. There could be a story tomorrow about monkeys flying out of the White House, with Michelle on the back balcony, screaming, “Fly, Fly!” …and it wouldn’t surprise me.

The depth and breadth of incompetence, not to mention the outright deliberate malfeasance of this administration, were it not for real, would be laughable.