Japan’s nuclear dream over…? Ummm, not really!

I posted something on the issue of Japan becoming a nuclear-power free country about a week ago and what impact this would have on the country, particularly coming up to the heavy power usage summer period.

I suggested that Japan would become a very important case study for other countries considering going away from nuclear power.

Well, it seems that this isn’t now going to happen and that at least two nuclear power reactors will be brought on-line very soon, to deal with a reported 15% power deficit in the western area!

I have to say i’m a bit surprised, given what has very recently happened to the country. In some ways it’s a good thing and will lead to far less CO2 being emitted from alternative power sources, including oil and gas. It’s also actually a bit predictable, given Japan’s renewable power system is not yet able to support the country’s power needs. A very tempting situation to be in for the Government – having a fleet of 50+ reactors just standing by, ready to supply vast quantities of power.

A bit more time needed for the renewable power sector.

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Faster than light particles & extra dimensions…?

A potentially truly incredible discovery by scientists at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, translated as… the European organisation for nuclear research).

Listen to this incredible interview with CERN’s Brian Cox who explains the situation far better than I can.

In a nutshell, this could be the first recorded evidence of a particle (in this case neutrinos, or anything for that matter) travelling faster than the speed of light. This could mean the existence of parallel dimensions which allow a different route for the particles to travel through, instead of using our own dimension, in effect more than the 3rd dimension and 4th dimension (time) which we already know about.

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Energy and pollution…

I just realised it’s been at least a day since my last rant about energy/pollution and the environment, so here goes… : )

Another great article from Monbiot on the issue of pollution, from one of the most feared sources on Earth – Nuclear power!

‘Let’s begin with safety. The best evidence for the safety and resilience of nuclear power plants can be found at Fukushima. Not at Fukushima Daiichi, the power station where the meltdowns and explosions took place, but at Fukushima Daini, the plant next door. You’ve never heard of it? There’s a good reason for that. It was run by the same slovenly company. It was hit by the same earthquake and the same tsunami. But it survived. Like every other nuclear plant struck by the wave, it went into automatic cold shutdown. With the exception of a nuclear missile attack, it withstood the sternest of all possible tests.

What we see here is the difference between 1970s and 1980s safety features. The first Daiichi reactor was licensed in 1971. The first Daini reactor was licensed in 1982. Today’s technologies are safer still. The pebble bed reactors now being tested by China, for example, shut themselves down if they begin to overheat as an inherent property of the physics they exploit. Using a plant built 40 years ago to argue against 21st-century power stations is like using the Hindenburg disaster to contend that modern air travel is unsafe.

Compare it to the damage and death that climate change will cause, and you find that our response is so disproportionate as to constitute a form of madness. It’s a straightforward pay-off. Germany’s promise to ditch nuclear power will produce an extra 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. In June Angela Merkel announced a possible doubling of the capacity of the coal and gas plants Germany will build in the next 10 years. Already Germany has been burning brown coal, one of the most polluting fuels on earth, to make up the shortfall. The renewable technologies which should have replaced fossil fuels will instead replace nuclear power.’

In terms of pollution reduction, David JC MacKay (Professor of Natural Philosophy Department of Physics, Cambridge) has developed an amazing resource website which covers every topic within the field of sustainable energy.

Here are some extracts from the website.

Fast breeder reactors use nuclear fuel 60 times more efficiently than once-through reactors and use the waste produced by standard reactors.

– The nuclear energy available per atom is roughly 1 million times more than the chemical energy per atom of conventional energy, meaning the waste in theory is 1 million times less. As an illustration, the amount of natural uranium required to provide the same amount of energy as 16 kg of fossil fuels, in a standard fission reactor, is 2 grams – 8,000 times more power per weight. This isn’t a million times more because most reactors only use 1% of the total nuclear potential of the uranium used as fuel.

– The period of time nuclear waste is dangerous = 1000 years, not 100,000 as suggested by other sources. The 100,000 year figure is apparently the time the Uranium will take to decay to a safe radiation level, but as a raw material found within uranium mines, it is as radioactive as nuclear waste which has been stored for 1000 years.

If this technology can be refined and properly controlled (still a big question mark) then the cost and efficiency of this power source could easily decarbonise our whole existing economy, as well as provide the bridge to the longer-term solution which is renewable energy from solar, wind, tidal and thermal.

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Food security…

I just read an article about the impact of food supply on security.

There’s a clear definition between the richest countries and the poorest, with the poorest being the sites of major wars and unrest. It’s amazing that with all of our knowledge, technology and food production capacity, this is still a major issue for most of the people on the planet.

Water stress could also be a very similar picture and  I imagine the two are closely related.

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Life out of balance…

Some shocking / interesting facts and figures on the state of the human race, produced by the UN Development programme.

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/764

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Riots, looters and thieving…

I wasn’t going to jump into this whole debate but i’ve seen a few things over the last couple of days which has changed my mind. Gloucester hasn’t escaped the influence of the riots, with some vandalism and fires started in a couple of places and some clashes with police.

The impact image from the first phase of the riots was the burning of the of the Carpetright building, with people escaping from the flats above.

Since then, i’ve also come across a few other interesting things, including a website which features altered photos of a number of the looters.

Another is YouTube video link to an interview with a local resident of London, who makes some good points about why the riots started.

My personal view is that there was some basis for the initial protest based on the initial fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, in that Mr. Duggan didn’t shoot at police first and was dragged from his vehicle then shot. In an area where there is existing tension between police and residents, this was always going to escalate. The subsequent looting and vandalism is not acceptable.

Some of the basis for why these people feel it is acceptable to go out and vandalise property, loot shops and endanger lives is that the example being set by influential members of our society is so fundamentally flawed. Politicians have been involved in illegal expenses claims for years, banks have been taking wild and irresponsible risks and gambles with our money for years (culminating in a long recession with all it’s associated problems and impacts), the police have been criticised for their handling of the student protestes and various enquires, religious hypocrisy has reared it’s head again in the form of the abuses of children.

So, the Government, police, bankers and religious leaders are not providing the kind of moral guidance which is needed, particularly at a time when the world economy is suffering and unemployment is high. When every job in some of these areas attracts in excess of 50 applicants, it must be very hard to get out of the situation. A recent job vacancy in my organisation attracted over 90 applicants, all with degrees and post-graduate qualifications.

The fact that the looters feel they have nothing to loose in doing what they are doing is a very sad reflection of the situation in some parts of our urban areas. I can’t imagine being in a position where I have nothing to loose. It must be a pretty grim position, especially as they know they are being filmed, photographed and now tracked down.

Having said all of that, all of this is not some kind of justification for what happened, but it is part of why it happened. I can’t condone much of what’s happening and not what’s happening in other urban areas. Compared to the real poverty experienced by the vast majority of the world’s population, people in this country are in a much better position, but it’s easy to say that when i’m not in that position!

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The GM wheat monster…!

As i’m finding out more and more about how the world functions in reality, as opposed to theory, there are a number of things which i’ve started to see in a different light. I think the biggest reason for this shift in thinking is a reflection of a new realism in my life, partly brought on by having kids, parly as a product of my job but also as a reaction to various people i’ve met over the years.

There are many people (I guess you’d call them idealists), who see what could happen more as an idea, rather than what I would very loosely define myself as, in terms of a realist, which is more about defining things in terms of what actually exists. I would actually call myself an optimistic realist, given I tend to see things in a positive way (much to the annoyance of my wife!), try to find solutions to problems and tend to evaluate things with reference to if they can be achieved given real constraints. Theories are fine but there has to be a connection to reality, unless you’re a theoretical mathmetician or philosopher.

I see the real value of thinking in terms of ‘how can we apply this to real people’s lives’, with the intention of helping them. This is how I view my interest in sustainability and climate change and it’s the driver behind much of who I am. It’s also what I do as a job and I believe the design of the built environment has huge and lasting impacts on residents of a place.

So, when the concept of GM foods comes up, I look at it in a very different way, compared to myself of even 5 years ago. There are many and varied arguments both for and against GM foods, but what’s interesting from my perspective is that i’m now caught in between two strong concepts of understanding.

On the one side is my increasing awareness of nature and the detachment of the connection between humans and the processes which exist on this planet. This break in the connection is resulting in both potential and real massive ecosystem changes, and needs to change if we are to keep our life support system operating properly.

On the other side is the realisation that the role of technology and science will be a major factor in deciding what the level of impact there will be on the people and life forms on this planet, from climate change and other changes to the planet.

In effect, it’s the clash of a respect for nature and the pressing need to use natural resources to preserve or enhance our place on this planet.

One of the major clash points comes with GM foods. This is the alteration of the fundamental genetic code of a species for the purposes of making that species less susceptible to various forms of environmental damage, in order to benefit humans.

My nature at this point in time is to buy organic, non-GM food, which is locally produced. It’s become a way of life and I wince if I see S.America on a packet of fruit! But, there are many very significant pressures around the corner which will need a different way of thinking in order to solve. Rigt now, the population is 7 Billion. By 2050 it’ll be 9 Billion. This is the mark where many scientists have commented that we will reach the world’s capacity to support us. Long before this point is reached, we will need to develop ways to feed far more people than we are doing right now, and in far more effective ways.

The impact of climate change is also a major factor, because areas which right now support our main cereal crops are changing and becoming more arid. Ground water levels are dropping in many parts of Australia, China and India, and large parts of the western United States are drying up. So, we’re not just looking at population expansion, we’re looking at this factor in connection with the supply going down. This is not a good position to be in.

Realistically, global food production will need to increase (as well as the distribution), but this may not be possible if the key production areas are suffering a reduction in output. This is where GM could come in. In theory and reality, we will be soon in a position where GM food could become a mass-market product, even given the potential problems, which include gene mutations, gene jumping to other species, moral issues, the grip of companies in exploiting farmers with their products etc. Or, could there be ways of crossing existing varieties without genetic modification?

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A new human epoch – the Anthropocene…

An interesting debate about formally adopting the next geological age of the planet – the Anthropocene.

The changed geological human footprint will be visible in the form of radio active material from atomic bomb tests, plastic pollution, increased carbon dioxide levels, industrial scale mining, deforestation & agriculture and human-induced mass extinction.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jun/03/geologists-human-epoch-anthropocene

‘In the past, geological changes on a scale big enough to merit a new epoch have been the result of events such as the eruption of a supervolcano or a catastrophic meteor strike – things a lawyer might describe as acts of God. Now, instead of being just another one of the millions of species on our planet, humans have become the determining factor – the guiding, controlling species – and many of our changes will leave a permanent mark in the rocks.’

‘Others feel that the new epoch is upon us and we should come to terms with its implications for the planet. “We broke it, we bought it, we own it,” Ellis says. “Now we’ve got to take responsibility for it.”‘

I totally agree.

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Japan earthquake/tsunami…

I was shocked yesterday seeing the terrible images from Japan, following the 8.9 earthquake off their NW coast. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like if a natural disaster struck England, with similar casualties. We just aren’t mentally or physically prepared for such an event.

Anyway, one of the things which struck me was that two of the world’s biggest economies are located on or very close to major tectonic fault lines. Both California and Japan (ranked 8th and 3rd in terms of economic output in terms of world ranking) are in this position – strange situation and very unstable.

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