Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Oops Worth Avoiding

Somehow OPG has managed to accidentally dump about 300 000 litres of tritiated water into the lake.

Obviously, the fact that such an accident has occurred bothers me, but probably not for the same reasons it bothers Sierra Club or Greenpeace. In all likelihood there is probably a greater threat posed by the hydrazine than the tritium.

As much as I don't think current tritium levels are a threat (as I've outlined before, the current levels are well below Europe's advisory limits and mostly below California's absolute limits), the fact that OPG would make such a mistake and would be unable to say even how much tritium was released is unnerving. Of course, from the description of the water it sounds like it would not have been expected to have any significant quantities of tritium in it at all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

AECL: Buyers Wanted

So the Harper government has finally decided to officially put the commercial side of AECL up for sale.

This is a good move that actually has nothing to do with the sale of 'reactors' as the Toronto Star's headline would lead you to believe. And it has nothing to do with reactor safety as comments on other news sites would have you believe.

The nuclear power plants are owned by the utilities NB Power, Hydro-Quebec, OPG and Bruce Power. Selling AECL changes none of that.

Regulating the nuclear industry is the job of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Selling AECL won't change that either.

Chalk River is not even up for sale, it is going to remain in government hands while AECL is split into its research and commercial divisions.

So what does privatizing AECL do? It will remove the CANDU design of reactors from government hands and give it to some private company, perhaps a larger conglomerate which will be better able to market the reactor. Or perhaps someone will pick up the commercial side in order to gain the talent and sink the CANDU line of reactors altogether. Is either result a terrible thing? I don't think so. The CANDU reactor has its benefits but if the costs outweigh the benefits there is no reason to keep building them.

I'm not terribly sentimental or nationalistic about these things to be honest.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

CNN Poll on Global Warming: What Does it Mean?

CNN is reporting that there has been a marked decline in the number of Americans who believe that man-made global warming is a proven fact. The article laments:

Only 45% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "Global warming is a proven fact and is mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial facilities such as power plants and factories." That number is down from 54% who agreed with the statement in June of last year and in May of 2007.
Meanwhile, the number of people who agreed with the statement that "Global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven" jumped to 31% in the current survey, up eight points from June 2008.

Some will certainly portray this as a great tragedy for science and will portray it as a victory for ignorance over scientific fact. On the other side, some people will claim this as a great victory over the world-wide conspiracy.

The truth is far from both.

Regardless of how you feel about man-made global warming, the truth is that it is not a proven fact. To quote from the APS ad-hoc committee formed to review the APS statement on global warming

Although the evidence is strong that climate warming has anthropogenic sources, as described above, anthropogenic warming is not a proven fact.[emphasis theirs!]
And that's from a committee that (correctly) rejected an application to significantly revise the current APS statement on global warming to make it anti-anthropogenic global warming. So people have moved away from the un-scientific view that global warming is a 'proven fact' to one where it is 'only' a 'theory'.

On re-reading it, its possible that one could weasel around and say that the poll only references "global warming" and not the "anthropogenic global warming" that the APS ad-hoc committee is referring to, but I think its generally understood by the public in the context of the question to mean that "global warming" was referring to the 'man-made' kind.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pointing Fingers and Laying Blame

The Toronto Star has been quick to blame the Harper government for the isotope 'fiasco' and has repeated their criticisms many times.

Which is quite unfair given the circumstances, but I wouldn't care so much if I didn't think they were playing fast and loose with the facts in their quest to blame Harper for this.

How long must Canadians wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to settle on a remedy for the shortage of medical isotopes? The issue has been on Harper's desk ever since Linda Keen, who then headed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, first raised "serious concerns" in 2007 about the Chalk River research reactor and tried to shut it down. She was overruled, but the reactor was finally shut down last spring anyway.

The concerns that Linda Keen had with the Chalk River research reactor was only tangentially related to why it ultimately shut down in 2008. Her concerns stemmed from the fact that it was extremely old while the actual reason it shut down was because it sprung a leak caused by corrosion. Her reasoning was that the reactor was operating in a way that increased the risk to the public, while the government's (and Liberal Party's) reasoning was that the health crisis that would have resulted from keeping the reactor shut down outweighed the risk presented by the reactor.

Moreover, in 2007 there was a planned remedy for the shortage of medical isotopes, the MAPLE reactors were still under development. However, they still could not satisfy one key requirement set by the CNSC and (ironically) Linda Keen and were attempting the first fix.

They sunk hundreds of millions of dollars between 2000 and 2008 and predicted that if they performed one engineering fix that everything would be okay and it would operate as required by the CNSC. That fix failed to wholly solve the problem (although it did partially improve it) and spawned more tests that would (maybe) identify the problem.

It was then in 2008 that the Canadian government decided that it was tired of pouring money into the black hole that was the MAPLE project, canceling the project mid-way through the new tests that might have found the engineering fix that was required.

Ottawa could also opt to restart the problem-dogged MAPLE reactors, though the panel sees "significant challenges" there.
The "significant challenges" the panel sees are because many of the scientists involved with the project that are predicting success with just a little more time and a few more million dollars are the same ones who failed to give Canada a proper reactor in the first place and failed to fix over the eight years that they had been given. To give a good comparison, construction of the reactors started at the end of 1997 and the first was completed in mid 2000.

Whatever the decision, it is Harper's to make. And he should make it soon. Indecision is shaking confidence in Canadian nuclear know-how at a time when Ottawa wants to make sales to Ontario and abroad. And it sure doesn't reassure patients who need timely care.

What was truly a body blow to Canada's reputation for nuclear know-how wasn't Harper's cancellation of the MAPLE projects, but the fact that Canadian nuclear experts built a reactor that did not operate as they predicted it would and could not satisfy the CNSC requirements which were well known and understood even after being allowed to double the project's bill and increasing the time frame by 8 years. Then when they attempted to fix it, they made predictions they could not keep.

Harper was stuck in a catch-22. Cancel the project and forfeit all the money spent and any potential gains. Or continue to pour money into the project and hope that the people who brought us into this mess could get us out of it. He chose the former and decided furthermore that AECL needed to be restructured to keep it from hemorrhaging money. Recent experiences with Point Lepreau have justified that decision even more.

Are We Entitled to Our Own Facts?

This is a must read column in my opinion concerning how we understand and respond to science and to how facts are presented.

Anyone considering a field in science policy or politics in general should take this lesson to heart. Know who you are speaking to and gauge your discussion to appeal to their own cultural values.

Some may think that massaging one's argument to win your opponent over is a needless exercise, but an argument for argument's sake is just noise and convinces no one. In fact, it will likely harden their attitude both towards you and towards the facts.

How can this be done? First you must understand what motivates others and be able to empathize with them and their point of view, even if you disagree with it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Don't Drink The Tritiated Kool-Aid

One thing that perhaps speaks the loudest in terms of the Sierra Club's impartiality is their paper "Tritium on Tap". As I mentioned a few days ago, its commonplace for scientists to demonstrate their biases in how they present data and the facts. This is a very good example of that.

I'm not going to address some of the papers they quote here, mostly because I've looked into some, and the issues seem too complex to summarize easily. Nevertheless, for the purposes of my argument I'll take it at face value that the papers are correct.

Their argument was that tritium poses a health hazard to the general public and that Canadian nuclear plants in particular are producing dangerous levels of tritium. To bolster their claim, they reference a German study that claimed to have identified a significant increase in the levels of childhood leukemia for people living within 5 km of nuclear reactors in that country. They also reference an American study which compiled a number of studies and identified a similar increase in the levels of childhood leukemia around nuclear reactors.

The problem with their argument, even if their facts are correct, is that none of that proves tritium emissions from nuclear reactors pose a health hazard.

Outside of primarily CANDU reactors, nuclear reactors do not produce tritium in any significant quantities. Any nuclear reactor using regular water as a moderator and coolant will be practically unable to produce tritium except by the most unlikely methods. Whereas in heavy water reactors (like the CANDU), tritium production is quite common. German and American nuclear reactors only produce negligible amounts of tritium, nothing anywhere near the level that would even cause observable increase over the background in local waterways.

The only study that would matter then would be if people living around Canadian CANDU reactors have an increased risk of childhood leukemia over and above the additional risk that these other papers identified as normal for German and American nuclear reactors.

While they may have set out to prove that tritium is dangerous, they have actually made it more difficult for themselves to make that claim.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cancerous Cellphones?

Well.. that's certainly reassuring now isn't it.

"Huge Study Finds Cellphones Don't Raise Tumor Risk" the headline practically screams out at you.

Of course, if you read the fine print the story is a little different. The study followed people in Scandinavia over thirty years from the 1974 to 2003 over which time we saw a huge number of advances, both in terms of medicine and technology, including the widespread introduction of cell phones. Nevertheless, we are told, the rate of brain tumors did not increase significantly over this time frame.

The authors attribute this to one of a half dozen possible reasons including the supposition that the time frame needed to induce cancer is longer than the period studied. Or the fact that the increased risk is negligible. Hardly the definitive statement that the headline makes it out to be.

Part of the problem with many studies is the difficulty in properly finding an appropriate control population. In this study, there is no control at all however, simply a comparison with past rates of brain tumors. This type of study then is limited in assuming that in general, people's lifestyles and the world around them is relatively unchanging and so the rate of brain tumors should remain unchanged over thirty years.

Is it possible that the rate of brain tumors would have decreased over the last thirty years without the introduction of cell phones? Are cell phones mitigating that decrease? Are cell phones going to have a longer term effect on their users? This study cannot answer these questions, nor do I believe we'll obtain an answer without comparing a cell phone using population with a non-cell phone using population in the same nation.

Not that I really believe cellphones are dangerous to their users, there really is no evidence that they cause any cancer whatsoever. I'm just always annoyed by how the media tends to twist legitimate research into making some grandiose and definitive statements.

One thing is for certain however, as Professor Daniel Krewski says, this story isn't over yet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is 'Climategate' a Scandal?

What has been dubbed by some as "Climategate" has certainly turned some heads and brought some of the scientists involved into disrepute. Moreover, the entire 'scandal' has possibly tarnished the reputation of scientists in the eyes of the general public.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

What people are seeing through the personal emails that were sent back and forth between these scientists is something that most people haven't seen before, that scientists can be nasty, thuggish and may even 'massage' data in order to get the answers they want or the answers that will make headlines.

The scientists dumped the raw data and only maintained the 'value-added' data. They boasted that they will ignore certain inconvenient papers that passed peer-review. They openly admit that some of their data sets are 'inferior' and that the scientists responsible are 'doing something very odd'. There are suspicions that they have manipulated data to show results inconsistent with the actual records available.

From the last link, an email conversation between two scientists:

[Karlen] In attempts to reconstruct the temperature I find an increase from the early 1900s to ca 1935, a trend down until the mid 1970s and so another increase to about the same temperature level as in the late 1930s.

A distinct warming to a temperature about 0.5 deg C above the level 1940 is reported in the IPCC diagrams. I have been searching for this recent increase, which is very important for the discussion about a possible human influence on climate, but I have basically failed to find an increase above the late 1930s.

[Trenberth] This region, as I am sure you know, suffers from missing data and large gaps spatially. How one covered both can greatly influence the outcome.

Even that last comment from Trenberth doesn't surprise me nearly as much as perhaps it should. What he seems to be saying is that how you massage the data may bring out different results because the quality of the data available is so poor.

So what?

Are you really surprised?

This is just a small window into the world in which many scientists work. The drive for funding leads some into exaggerating progress and applicability and making bold predictions that they themselves likely do not believe. Ideological viewpoints are reflected in how sensitive data is manipulated and reported to the public. Some scientific results reported will be flat out wrong even though the scientists themselves may sincerely believe what they report. Mere statistical noise can be thoroughly examined and expanded into an entire thesis topic, never to be seen again.

Studies regarding radiation hormesis, cold fusion, health 'benefits' of alcohol, chocolate and numerous other controversial topics often will contradict each other despite many passing some form of peer-review. Even many non-controversial topics will be fraught with contradictions between studies.

Historical scientific personalities often had interesting personal lives that would probably shock people today. I'm thinking of Milikan and Harvey Fletcher's oil drop experiment and Einstein and his affair with his first cousin in particular.

None of this devalues the actual work being done by these or other scientists everyday nor the theories they espouse, but simply should remind us to take everything we read or hear with a grain of salt. Even if the person has a Ph.D from a prestigious university.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tritiated Steam, Smoke and Mirrors

One thing I learned in reading the news is to be aware of the source of your information. Often, special interest groups have a way of skewing the facts in a way that suits their purposes. You may think this rich coming from me, but I've been very open about my biases. This news article is not clear in the fact that its 'source' is an organization that is itself biased against nuclear power.

The facts in the article are disturbingly skewed in order to spread fear and misinformation. To set things straight, let me agree with what they say on the following:

Do Canadian nuclear reactors release tritium? Yes.

Can exposure to large quantities of radiation cause cancer? Yes.

Are levels of radiation around nuclear power plants higher than elsewhere? Yes. Five times in the case of tritium? Probably more in some cases.

Where I disagree with the article and Sierra club is in the danger posed by tritium. First a little bit of physics knowledge about tritium.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, generally references to 'tritium' are usually to 'tritiated water' where a tritium atom has replaced one (or even both) hydrogen atom to form what is abbreviated as HTO, where T stands for tritium. Tritium, is radioactive with a natural half-life of about 12 years. When it decays it emits an extremely low-energy beta particle, also known as an electron. This electron, having an extremely low energy, is unable to pass through a piece of paper or a dead layer of skin and so, while external to your body poses absolutely no danger to your health.

Unfortunately, it behaves identically to water and will get into your body as easily as normal water, where it may pose a threat. This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is inside of your body and can cause damage if you have long term exposure to large quantities. The good news is the tritium becomes spread out in your body and delivers what is known as a 'whole body does' rather than a local dose. On the surface, this sounds bad, but its actually good. Other radioactive isotopes, if ingested will accumulate in particular parts of your body, so even relatively small doses taken over a long period of time can cause serious and specific health problems. Tritium is first diluted by spreading across your whole body and then easily expelled by your body's natural processes. This means that if you ingest a quantity of tritium, it will have a half life in your body of approximately 8 days. After a little over a week, half the tritium will be gone. After a bit over two weeks, only a quarter will remain. After three and a half weeks, only one eighth the original amount will remain. And so on.

To give a similar comparison, it is like Vitamin C as opposed to Vitamin D. If you eat too much Vitamin D, then you will die because it is fat soluble and collects. Vitamin C, being water soluble, is diluted in your body and regularly flushed from your system and so no matter how much Vitamin C you eat, you will not die.

Alright, but I did say that levels of tritium around nuclear power plants can be five times the norm, isn't this dangerous? The answer is unequivocally, no.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission regulates how much radiation a member of the Canadian public is allowed to receive as a result of the operation of a nuclear power plant. They, and the World Health Organization make certain assumptions concerning how much radiation a member of the public receives as a result of tritiated water. Using these assumptions they derived a limit of approximately 7700 Bq/L as a 'safe' limit. The WHO rounds up to 10 000 Bq/L, while the CNSC rounds down to 7000 Bq/L. These limits ensure that the public is exposed to less radiation from tritium than is normal to receive for medical operations and far less than a member of the public would receive from even naturally occurring background radiation! In Europe, after some arbitrary revisions of the initial assumptions concerning how much people should be allowed to be exposed to, they set a limit of 100 Bq/L. Sites around a nuclear power plant must be tested for their radioactivity in order to ensure that they are complying with these limits. Deviations are not tolerated.

Standard background levels range from 0 - 6 Bq/L, depending on where you are. Windsor, Ontario for example has a background tritium level of about 5 Bq/L.

Now, I said that the European standards were arbitrarily chosen, and I meant it. In my opinion, they chose limits not based on scientific analysis of the dangers posed by tritium itself, but on the assumption that any tritium in the water exceeding the limits set would be an indication that there was a release of other more dangerous radioactive particles. Why do they feel this way? Because their nuclear reactors don't produce significant quantities of tritium! So there shouldn't be large quantities of tritium in the water at all. In contrast, Canadian nuclear reactors produce tritiated water under normal operation so there is to be expected more tritium under normal circumstances.

That being said, Canadian nuclear power plants operate in a way that easily satisfies even the European standards. As this table shows.

Figure 1: Tritium levels around selected nuclear sites in Canada (see reference for all)

The highest value in that list there? Roughly 60 Bq/L. Which is well even the European levels. Only one site (Pickering) has any value that exceeds the European standards of 100 Bq/L. But even that one has a range of reported values from 1.9 Bq/L to 120 Bq/L.

Even still, that value is one hundredth the safety limit recommended by the WHO and easily an order of magnitude lower than that recommended by the CNSC. But "Canadian Nuclear Power Plants Easily Satisfy Stringent Safety Limits" wouldn't make a good headline.


"Standards and Guidelines for Tritium in Drinking Water", Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, January 2008. [pdf]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Out of the Pan...

.. and into the fire.

The world lurches from one crisis to the next.

India, Canada and Trade

India's nuclear power plants run at reduced power because they lack uranium.

Canada is one of the world's three biggest exporters of uranium.

Demand, meet supply.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Following Up On A Previous Conversation

The other day I mentioned the interesting topic regarding first names and Japanese culture, today I will mention Obama's faux pas regarding bowing.

Honestly, I know that among some this is a big deal. I find it irritating more that he is hypocritical. He does not bow to the Queen in this way and allows a ridiculous breach in protocol by his wife but then practically kisses his toes when speaking to the Emperor of Japan and the King of Saudi Arabia.

In any case, I used to live in Japan and when I saw Obama's bow I instinctively knew that something was wrong with the handshake and the deep bow at the same time. I saw it as an embarassing gaffe for someone who considers themselves to be "America's first Pacific President".

Nevertheless, as a foreigner, I doubt he offended the Emperor or anyone else with his ignorance. Japanese people tend to be quite amused by the ignorance of foreigners of their culture and its pretty much expected that a foreigner will not know Japanese culture. It is impressive when they do though.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's in a Name?

This article was interesting to me for a number of reasons.

One reason was because of this comment by the Japanese Prime Minister

Standing beside Mr. Obama at the Japanese equivalent of the White House, the Kantei, Mr. Hatoyama said, “We’ve come to call each other Barack and Yukio, and gotten quite accustomed to calling each other by our names.”

To westerners this may not seem very significant. So they're on a first name basis, so what? But in Japanese culture, referring to someone by their first name is extremely rude unless you are close friends and of similar social status. For example, a Japanese colleague of mine felt extremely uncomfortable when his English supervisor referred to him by his first name. Even though he was on good terms with his supervisor he felt that it was socially unacceptable to have his professor (someone of higher social status) refer to him by his first name under any circumstances.

Its similar in French where, as I understand it, 'tu' is used as a friendly term while 'vous' is more formal situations. You would not refer to the Premier as 'tu', but as 'vous'. I remember reading a biography of Bourrassa where it was pointed out by the author as being a significant when journalists stopped using 'vous' in addressing their questions to Bourrassa as it demonstrated a loss of respect for him.

In any case, the fact that the Prime Minister of Japan refers to Obama by his first name is significant for perhaps two reasons. Without trying to go too deeply into it, the Japanese Prime Minister did study at Stanford, so it could just be that he recognizes Western culture and understands that westerners see being on a 'first name basis' less seriously. But it could also be taken as an astute political move to demonstrate to the Japanese people that Japan is not a subservient nation to the USA. That the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of the USA are not of unequal social status, which would line up very well with the positions that Hatoyama has taken recently, asserting independence from US policy to an extent not before seen. I could be wrong, but I don't recall reading anywhere that Bush and Koizumi, despite being called 'BFF' by some in the media ever publicly stated that they called each other by their first names.

So while this might be an exercise in putting on a good show for the media, I'm tempted to believe that it reflects Hatoyama's fundamental desire to re-work the USA-Japan alliance to one where Japan is considered more equal.

Friday, November 6, 2009

H1N1: Update

You didn't need to be a medical expert to figure this one out.

But I don't have anything to add to this article.

I will add one thing to this article however. Considering that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics I'll be careful to say too much, but shouldn't we be using last year's statistics as a proper reference rather than last week. It doesn't say much that hospitalizations are up three times from last week when we're in the middle of the typical flu season. What would be far more interesting is if what we are seeing is atypical for the average year.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Say What? Radioactive Coal?

For all the talk that some anti-nuclear environmentalists make about nuclear power plants and the 'dangers' they pose in terms of radiation, coal fired power plants, which emit larger amounts of radiation into the nearby ecosystems largely get a pass on this issue.

One reason is control and government regulations. Nuclear power plants have (and rightly so) an incredible amount of radiation safety procedures that must be followed. Every small quantity of radiation released into the environment is monitored and reported. People entering and leaving the facility are closely tracked and their exposure recorded in a national database. (If you've ever been a Nuclear Energy Worker - you know what I mean)

So, if you're a nation like, Germany, which was planning on eliminating their nuclear power plants and was in the process of building coal fired power plants to replace them, you're actually increasing the radiation you are exposing the public to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nuclear Energy, Global Warming and You

Its always fascinating to me the instinctive knee-jerk opposition nuclear energy receives from the most ardent environmentalists. Especially when the same people, in practically the same breath demand that government do something, anything to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

If you want to really reduce your carbon emissions, you need to build nuclear power plants. There's no two ways about it. I've blogged about this numerous times, citing sources as varied as the Danish government to the Obama administration. I've pointed out the flaws associated with solar and wind energy and why they, as they exist now, are not true 'alternatives' to coal since they cannot provide constant, on demand electricity. At best, they can reduce our base electricity demands by 10-20% under ideal circumstances. Not a terrible thing, but they cannot replace other sources of electricity.

Hydroelectric dams are probably ideal, but you cannot build them whenever, wherever you want and they can carry huge environmental impacts (think about the Three Gorges Dam).

So for the time being we're left with nuclear power plants as being the only real 'carbon-free' electricity source that can be employed on a large scale, in a cost efficient manner to produce a constant (or nearly so) supply of electricity.

So when governments institute ridiculous taxes on nuclear energy simply for the pleasure of producing electricity in a safe and carbon-free manner it makes me laugh and cry. It also makes me laugh and cry when governments decide against building nuclear power plants for 'environmental reasons' preferring instead to continue using coal fired power plants. (I'm looking at you Germany, Saskatchewan and Alberta).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This Is Actually Not Unusual

I know how the optics of this look.

But in all honesty I'm not surprised. Its not unusual for some government agencies to only have hard copies of some documents. Or at least to claim they only have hard copies available.

Here's a question though. To arrive at such a number, someone would have had to taken the time to actually count all 4476 pages one at a time. Was that really the best use of their time? Couldn't they just have said 'thousands' of pages?

I suppose that for dramatic effect they need to give an exact number to the newspapers but I don't think any government agency should do something like that just so that the media can have a number to place in their headlines.

Maybe the document was already numbered? If so, then why not send it as a pdf on a USB drive?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Future of New Brunswick Power

Of these two sets of comments by Silver and Powers, I'm tempted to agree with Silver more.

Not because he has worked as a consultant for utilities but because his points seem more valid and his chief complaint seems extremely well considered as well. Powers complaint concerning 'sovereignty' may be valid, and his use of historical experience is useful in understanding his point of view, but is not particularly relevant to New Brunswick necessarily.

One item that I would like to note is that Hydro Quebec is going to assume control of New Brunswick's Point Lepreau after refurbishment is complete. This, combined with Quebec's refurbishment plans for Gentilly-2 will give Hydro Quebec a foot in the door of the nuclear industry rather than simply a toe. With plans for AECL to be sold this is a significant factor to be considered.

Quebec gets almost all its electricity from hydroelectric projects so at first glance the need for nuclear power would be minimal, but if Quebec has plans to expand its market to the USA then it will need more electricity than it already has and 100% of that has to be carbon-free to be politically palatable. Since it is selling electricity for profit, expensive solar panels and subsidized wind power are not options since those would minimize or eliminate profits rather than increase them or would lead to an increase in Quebec's hydro rates.

No, the only option is for Quebec to acquire more nuclear power. But building in-province would be politically dangerous. Charest has seen the backlash in Saskatchewan and Alberta from some, so pushing for more nuclear power is risky in your own province. So why not acquire and expand the nuclear sites in New Brunswick.

The 'expand' part would be tricky. To do so, Hydro Quebec would have to purchase the CANDU 6 rights from AECL at the very least. But considering they just put down a $10 billion offer for New Brunswick Power, might we see them make a bid for AECL to get the rights to build more nuclear reactors of their own?

Time will tell.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Boy Who Cried Flu

I think Margaret Wente nails this one right on the head.

The media-overexposure of H1N1 is dangerous in its own way as people are now realizing. Part of the problem is that people in the media and government seem to have forgotten a fundamental human nature, the nature to be suspicious.

If a vendor is trying desperately to sell you something that you are hesitant to buy, are you more or less likely to dig in your heels as they push you harder to buy it? For me, I'd be less likely to buy it because I'd suspect that there is a reason they are so desperate to sell me it. Poor quality, price is too high, ancient curse, I'm not sure, but if they're so desperate to get rid of it there must be a reason and its probably not to my benefit.

People are rational beings, not irrational crazies as some would like to believe. We were told months ago that the H1N1 was a 'pandemic' and were warned that 'millions could die'. Media kept a running tally of the sick and dying. Internet sites plotted the cases on fancy maps, showing the ever expanding spread of the virus. Health groups were feverishly putting out new information every day. People watched with fear and trepidation as H1N1 reached Canada and... nothing really happened.

Some people got sick. Some people died. As Wente points out, somewhere between 700 and 1400 people die from the flu every day around the world. In comparison, only 5000 people have died from H1N1 worldwide.

People aren't idiots, they see that their friends and family get sick with H1N1 and recover. Just like they do every year when they catch the flu. The few cases that do die are few and far between. So more and more they come to believe that the government and media are exaggerating the danger and believe less and less what they say about it.

Pushing harder only causes these people to dig in their heels and take positions that typically would be untenable.

The real tragedy of all this is when a real serious pandemic strikes, people may have become so cynical about the government and media that they won't believe them at all.

UPDATE: Just noticed Thomas Walkom's article saying something similar.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

H1N1: Australia Edition

Somewhere in a news report I was reading recently, the fact that Australia had reported an increase in the confirmed flu cases over 8 times the normal seasonal flu was highlighted as a reason for the near-hysterical response by some governments and people.

That was an impressive number I thought, and quite convincing when held in isolation, but then I remembered that the Australian flu season is over now, and they did not have the benefit of a vaccine either. So it got me to thinking, that Australia is a similar nation to Canada in terms of infrastructure (health care, etc..) and population (large nation with areas of dense population density and areas of sparse population density). It might serve as a useful analogy to see how dangerous H1N1 really is.

Figure 1: Confirmed Flu Cases in Australia by Week [1]

As shown in Figure 1, there really has been an increase in the number of confirmed flu cases in Australia, 8.4 times the 5 year average in fact according to the Australian government. But these are only 'confirmed' cases this year, and in years past there's no guarantee that people didn't experience flu like symptoms only to decide not to report them or confirm them with a laboratory. In effect, because the testing rates this year are not similar to testing rates in the past its a useless measure.

A more useful measure perhaps is how often general practitioners have patients who are experiencing 'influenza like illnesses' (ILI). Australian government records helpfully record that the rate of observed ILI cases in 2009 is actually lower than in 2007 and similar in magnitude (although not in time) to 2008.

Figure 2: Rate of ILI in Australia by General Practitioners [1]

Alright, one might argue, but what if people are so sick they're not going to their family doctor and are instead heading straight to the emergency room, this wouldn't be reflected in the rate in Figure 2. This is true, however, records show that the number of presentations at emergency rooms in Australia with ILI is similar to 2007 but significantly higher than 2008. The 2007 rate was attributed to what the report says is a public response to a few cases of child deaths associated with influenza. Interestingly enough, there might be something to this, the number of hospitalizations in Australia from influenza is typically around 2000/year, whereas this year it is around 4000.

What can we take away from this? Well, the rate of confirmed influenza has increased by 8 times, but the number of hospitalizations has only doubled. So we can either confirm the hypothesis that they are indeed testing more often or confirm that influenza is less dangerous percentage wise because the rate of ILI hospitalizations over the number of lab confirmed influenza has actually decreased. Moreover, its also possible that with all the talk about H1N1 going around, that doctors are taking fewer chances and are hospitalizing patients more often than normal. After all, their fundamental rule is to do no harm.

Figure 3: Rate of ILI Presentations at Emergency Rooms in Australia [1]

Finally, just in case you weren't convinced by all that, it would be expected that if influenza was as widespread and as dangerous as some are making it out to be, that there would be a significant increase in the absenteeism reported. As seen in Figure 4, this is absolutely not the case.

Figure 4: Absenteeism reported in Australia [1]

The message I took away from all this information was simple. Get your flu shot if you want, but lets not panic, and lets not get carried away worrying about H1N1.

[1] Australia Influenza Surveillance Summary Report, Australian Government [link]

Friday, October 23, 2009

On The Future of AECL

Ironically, the one major issue that seems to be dominating the Canadian technology/political news is the one issue that I am loathe to touch with a ten foot pole.

The future of AECL has been in doubt for several months as the federal government made it clear that they intended to sell AECL to private companies. At first brush, this is not necessarily the 'death knell' that many people make it out to be.

AECL is having a terrible time marketing itself to the world for a number of reasons.

1) CANDU reactors are more expensive than other kinds of reactors.

2) The benefit that using natural uranium has been steadily decreasing over the years as the cost of enriching uranium decreased and AECL has been unable to capitalize on new fuels (like Thorium) the way it would have liked.

3) Frequent conflicts with the CNSC as changing safety regulations place them on uneven ground trying to keep up with the safety requirements placed on them. This means they have not been able to market a single standard reactor.

4) Management fiascos like the one at Point Lepreau in New Brunswick are the norm rather than the exception. (see MAPLE for another example) Doesn't matter who is to blame for the delays or what the reason is, the fact that they cannot deliver on a product in the time they say the will makes these events fiascos.

The CANDU reactor is more expensive than other reactors, but that alone shouldn't be enough to undo AECL. Neither should the changing realities about UO2. Even the conflicts with the regulator nor management fiascos on their own shouldn't bring them down. But taken together it is a potentially lethal mix.

With or without privatization, the CANDU line of reactors is nearly dead. Of the scores of new reactors being constructed or planned not one is a CANDU. Even Ontario is having trouble swallowing the cost of a new CANDU.

But one thing is for sure, the research side of AECL is in deeper trouble than the commercial side. Without any plans for new research reactors what will the research half of AECL be able to do? Spinning off the commercial CANDU end of AECL might preserve that half (or might not) but without a research reactor, the research end of AECL is doomed.

What is needed politically is clear action. The time for striking committees and getting advice should be over and the time for political willpower to push one direction or another is upon us. The longer the delay in clarity, the less likely anyone is to even buy AECL and AECL will be left to die a slow, agonizing death.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

About Those Polls...

Alright, so Raphael and I have restarted our poll tracker. So I'll discuss the boring technicalities of why I compile the polls the way I do. Some of what I do may seem simplistic, but I have put some thought in behind why I am doing it that way.

The Politics of Binning

The first thing that I do is 'bin' the polls based on their polling end date. Binning the polls is a way of accumulating more data to obtain a smaller numerical error but a larger time 'error'. During the previous election, because of the large number of polls being released virtually everyday, I had the luxury of playing with the methodology a bit. Because of the relative scarcity of polls now, I am binning them into weeks.

Generally polling companies rarely release polls that have been conducted over the weekend, although this is not a hard and fast rule, the one polling company that is continuing to release polls week after week (Ekos) is always polling during the weekdays and not on the weekends. So the bin boundary was set to be Friday evening.

A Weighty Issue

That means that every Friday I accumulate all the new polls together from the previous week and perform a straight weighted average. Now, you might be thinking I've taken the lazy man's way out and am ignoring the intricacies of polls. Decided versus Leaners Included. Reliability of polling companies. And so on and so forth.

The truth is I could create a complicated and massive system designed to account for all these issues. I could use the previous two election results to measure the difference between using 'leaners included' and 'decided only' methods. I could estimate the reliability of polling companies (as has been done elsewhere). But fundamentally, such methods are ignoring a few key details.

First of all, they are ignoring the dreaded 'margin of error'. Statistically speaking, you can't get your results more accurate than the margin of error, which says that 95% of the time the value will be within the value plus or minus the margin of error. So a poll that pegs the Tories at 36% with a margin of error of 3% the day before the 2008 election wouldn't have been 'wrong' or a 'bad poll'. It is still within the statistical margin of error.

Secondly, they assume that polling companies are static and that they don't change their polling or weighting methods. If a polling company knows that their polling is systematically wrong one way or another then they will change their polling weighting methods to try to obtain a more accurate one. A biased polling company doesn't get any work.

Finally, I invoke the power of Occam's Razor (otherwise known as the KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid! principle). To prove that a more complicated method of analysis is needed, the standard is placed higher than simply "because we can". Other groups have tried to find systematic biases and errors in polling results only to find their final results off when push comes to shove. The reason, I believe, is because they are using a complicated method, where a simple method would derive similar results in terms of accuracy.

I'll discuss this further later.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Future of Warfare

The lights go out.

That'll be the first thing that you notice. You'll look outside and will probably notice that the lights at your neighbours and the streetlamps are out too. Odd though, there isn't a thunderstorm, must have been some grid problem again, you'll think. You're used to power outages though, you've remembered to keep a flashlight handy.

But why won't your cell phone turn back on? That's bizarre. You'll also find that your car probably won't work either. While you don't know it now, its because the on-board computer systems are fried.

Now you may start to panic. Maybe it will cross your mind that you've just experienced an EMP attack, but maybe not. As night falls, and the lights have not yet come back on you'll be wondering how long before the electricity comes back. The answer may surprise you.

Months to years.

In 1999, during a tense moment in Russian-US discussions over NATO actions in the former Yugoslavia, a Russian Duma member declared that "if Russia wanted to harm the US without incurring nuclear retaliation, it would simply launch a single nuclear-tipped missile from a submarine and detonate it high in the atmosphere over the American continent... pulses of electromagnetic energy ... would wipe out the electricity generating and transmission system across a huge portion of the continent." [1]

The damage could take years to repair.

The Americans are well aware of the potential repercussions of such a strike. In 1962, a nuclear test code-named Starfish Prime detonated a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead 400 km above the Johnston Atoll, causing electrical disruptions 1400km away in Hawaii. [2] To put it in perspective though, North Korea's latest nuclear test was only between 10 and 20 kilotons.

An EMP strike is a very real possibility and one that is being considered by many nations in the world, both how to commit an attack, and how to defend against one. Its hard to imagine a world without electricity for months but its been the fodder for science fiction works for years. While such an attack would produce no immediate casualties, its hard to imagine that it would not produce a nuclear retaliation, if that were still possible. MAD by another name I suppose.

[1] Kramer, D. "US electricity grid still vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses" Physics Today, September 2009.

[2] Day, C. "Very low-frequency radio waves drain Earth's inner radiation belt of satellite-killing electrons" Physics Today, August 2008

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blowing in the Wind

I say this often, but I can't say it often enough. Wind power is not an alternative energy source. It can not nor will it ever be able, on its own, to replace coal, nuclear, oil or any other consistent source of electricity.

I hear talk however about 'combining' wind with electricity generation from hydroelectric projects. Which again, is just foolishness. The problem stems from the fact that when the wind stops blowing something needs to replace all of the electricity generated by wind not just part of it.

Some environmentalists use the following logic: (the numbers are just for fun - a nuclear station produces far more than this in a year)

Hydro produces 100 kWh in a year
Nuclear produces 50 kWh in a year
Wind produces 50 kWh in a year
Demand is 150 kWh in a year

Wind + Hydro = Demand

Voila! Wind can replace nuclear power, they will say. The problem comes when you look on a day-to-day or even minute-to-minute basis. At one particular instant this may be the case: (again, numbers are ridiculously low and just for fun)

Hydro can produce up to 100 kW
Wind produces 10 kW
Demand is 150 kW

Wind + Hydro < Demand

What happens when electricity supply is less than demand? Well, you stop reading this blog for one thing, because your electricity goes out.

And yet, I still have to deal with environmentalists who insist that wind power can replace nuclear power. For good measure I'll quote an Obama scientist working under Steven Chu, Steven Koonin. In an interview with Physics Today he said: "Wind is now 2% of electricity generated in the US... it will probably get to 20%, but then you start getting into issues of intermittency and transmission... beyond that, I think there are two material options: nuclear fission power and carbon capture and storage." [1]

[1] "Physicist Steven Koonin takes on a new role as DOE's 'technical conscience'" Physics Today, Sep 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Those Who Forget History...

To remind you why the Czechs seem so .. paranoid about the USA betraying them. I'll give you a few reasons:

1) 30 September 1938: Munich agreement in violation of French alliance agreements surrenders large portions of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

2) 15 March 1939: In violation of the Munich agreement, Germany occupies the rest of the country and splits the remnants between Hungary, Poland and a newly 'independent' Slovakia. French and British say nothing.

3) May 5-8 1945: Prague uprising brutally crushed under German tanks while frantic pleas to the American soldiers who were literally on the outskirts of Prague are completely ignored. War ends on May 8th with the Czechs practically begging the Germans not to obliterate what remains of Prague.

4) 1945 Soviet Takeover: Despite being a liberal democracy before World War 2, Britain and the USA agreed to allow the Soviets to occupy Czechoslovakia. Even though the Americans were in large parts of the country first. Agreement was made to obtain support fighting Japan.

5) 1948 Communist Coup: Despite being promised that plural democracy would be ensure the Soviets violate their agreement and install a Communist dictatorship. USA and Britain because of their agreement in 4) can do nothing but accept it.

Following this, despite some efforts (see: Prague Spring), Czechoslovakia remained firmly under occupation by the Soviets.

It doesn't take too much imagination to see where someone might think the Czechs could see parallels between the current situation with respect to missile defence and historical examples. One would think that someone as supposedly smart as Obama would realize this, but I've long accepted that he is not as 'smart' as his proponents give him credit for.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Can May Win?

My first answer to this question is: I sure hope not! But my second answer is a bit more thought out. Elizabeth May has now run in one federal election and one by-election, so it is useful to take a look at her decision to run in Saanich Gulf Islands next election and why she chose that riding.

In all honesty, she didn't have much of a choice. The other option, Bruce Grey Owen Sound, was already occupied by a 'star' candidate who had very strong local backing as a result of his employment by Bruce Power at the nuclear power plant there. Elizabeth May, running against nuclear power in a riding where people are employed at a nuclear power plant is not going to fly.

But, as my question asks, can she win in Saanich Gulf Islands?

Lets take a look at her previous attempts and compare them to how previous elections went. In London North Centre, she drew votes from pretty well every party, including the Conservatives. Comparing previous and later elections to the by-election results we can see this pretty clearly. However, this was a riding with no incumbent and it was a by-election which can sometimes bring out strange results. However, in recent years this conventional wisdom (that by-elections produce strange results) has been broken by the NDP victories in Montreal and Windsor-West vindicated by later federal elections and CPC victories in Saskatchewan and rural Quebec, also later vindicated in federal elections.

Figure 1: London North Centre Election Results

In Central Nova, running against a well known minister and with no Liberal candidate, we can see that the net result was for more Conservatives votes overall, but it can be inferred from the London by-election that some Liberals voted the Conservatives rather than voting for Elizabeth May and that some Conservative voters were lured away by Elizabeth May. The NDP in both cases, dropped by 7% and 13% from previous years in London North Centre and Central Nova respectively despite running decent candidates in both. They provide our most solid basis for evaluation.

Figure 2: Central Nova Election Results

So, we've learned a few interesting things.

1) Based on London North Centre and Central Nova results, Elizabeth May can increase her share of the vote by 7-13% from the NDP.
2) Based on the London North Centre results, Elizabeth May can increase her share of the vote by 5-8% from the CPC.
3) Based on the London North Centre results, Elizabeth May can increase her share of the vote by 5-6% from the LPC.

This looks quite hopeful as it means that potentially, her presence in a race could increase the Green party share of the vote by 17-27%.

Her next election in the Saanich Gulf Islands riding will look very similar to the one in the London North Centre since it can be expected that the Liberals and NDP will both field decent candidates to try to oust the Conservative incumbent. Looking at the results for that riding it can be seen that naively assuming the most optimistic scenario where the Conservative vote share drops 8% and she increases 27% she would take the riding by a hair (37.5-35.5%).

But unfortunately it isn't that simple since the NDP vote share in 2008 was artificially low because the NDP candidate dropped out late in the election. Thus, using the 2006 results is more reasonable and results in pretty much the same result (37% - 32%) assuming the most optimistic scenario for Elizabeth May.

Figure 3: Saanich Gulf Islands Results

So, it is possible for Elizabeth May to win assuming that she can draw votes from the Conservatives, Liberals in the same proportion as she did in London by-election and from the NDP in the same proportion as she did in the Central Nova race. Still, its a long shot. Eve

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Putting Things in Perspective

Well, congratulations to Ontario's Liberals for finally putting together a plan to phase out those coal fired power plants that you had promised to get rid of by 2007. All you had to do was wait for the economy to sink so the electricity demand dropped. Sorry if I come across as really cynical but that's the truth.

Electricity demand is far below what the province is able to supply as shown in Figure 1. Moreover, demand is down from a peak of 27 000 MW three years ago to a minimum of 12 000 MW now. [link]

Figure 1: Electricity Supply (blue) to Electricity Demand (green) [link]

As for making Ontario a 'leader', excuse me to laugh. Quebec, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Manitoba all have been getting most of their electricity from hydro for years and so their coal consumption is minimal as in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Electricity Generation By Source By Province for Ontario, BC and Quebec [link]

Now this is not to say that I'm opposed to the replacing of coal with something better, but lets temper our enthusiasm with some reality. Moreover, when electricity demand increases in Ontario again, how much do you want to bet they will bring coal back or import electricity from the USA (which will probably be from coal). I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Failed Test?

Interestingly, it is being said that at least one of India's nuclear tests back in 1998 actually failed and one of the scientists is therefore advocating that India not sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty until it has established a 'credible nuclear deterrent'. A more detailed article is available here.

Quite frankly, I find that argument baloney. Pakistan, India's principle threat, knows that India has plenty of nuclear bombs that are sufficiently functional. A single failed test shouldn't delay India from signing onto the CTBT. Moreover, India needs to consider whether its continued defiance of the international nuclear community will cause its newly re-established suppliers to reconsider their decision to abandon the virtual trade embargo placed on India after their initial nuclear tests.

India, lacking any real indigenous sources of uranium, requires trade to be able to maintain their nuclear power plants. Increases in power demands and the construction of additional nuclear power plants will only serve to increase the demand for uranium and while thorium based cycles are showing progress they cannot serve to replace uranium altogether.

Further nuclear tests would only serve to undermine India's current status with the USA and with the international community and highlight India's dependence on foreign sources for its uranium. They would not, in my opinion, further any military or national defence goals.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is Obama Slowing Nuclear Disarmament?

I've made it clear in previous posts that I believe that eliminating nuclear weapons is foolhardy and unrealistic. But that doesn't mean that I'm not in favour of reducing nuclear stockpiles. After all, we don't need to have the ability to destroy the world several times over.

This article in Physics Today details what some observers feel is a seven year delay in the plans for nuclear reductions agreed to by Obama and Medvedev. It is possible that, as outlined in the article, the seven years is just a placeholder to be replaced once a congressional review is complete. But if that was the case, why specify seven years at all?

Actually even the proposed targets seem to be less than satisfying in general. The US and Russia probably won't have to make any cuts in their delivery systems, and the further cuts to their strategic nuclear inventory are quite small compared to what the US has made since the end of the cold war.

Its possible that the agreement is just a political move designed to make it look like Obama is serious about reducing the number of nuclear weapons. Or its possible that this is just the fore-runner to a more serious agreement. Time will tell.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Money Doesn't Solve Everything

Jeffrey Simpson takes the big five universities in Canada to task, arguing that they shouldn't be demanding a larger share of the research monies from the government and that their real problem is with university professor salaries.

Generally, I have no beef with his argument. He makes a number of important points regarding the salary of 'entry-level' professors (also generally known as assistant professors) and the percentage of universities' budget devoted to professors. However, he does make one statement that irked me a bit.
If big universities spent half as much time and sustained effort trying to improve undergraduate teaching as they do searching for more research money, they, the students and the country might be better off.
I think that larger universities do tend to take their undergrads for granted, there is a sense of 'you will come regardless of how we treat you' that pervades the university, but its not so strong that it repels potential students. However, I don't believe that improving undergraduate teaching is as easy as just spending more money or time on it.

The reason is because undergraduate education has changed over the last generation and the expectations now are far different than they used to be. In the past, university education was seen as something of a luxury, today it is seen as practically an extension of high school. Almost everyone today who graduates from high school goes on to get some form of higher education, usually university.

Figure 1: Percentage of Canadians over 15 by Education Level. [Source: Statistics Canada]

The problem is that this leads to a large number of students who act like university is just like high school. Its a maturity problem. Universities still behave like 'institutions of higher learning' when a large number of their students are less interested in learning, and more interested in partying.

I can recall when I was a student representative in my department committees, looking at the professor 'report cards' that there was an emphasis on looking at how the 'high achieving' students felt about the professor (A+, A, A-, B+). Students with low grades will always blame the professor for their low grades rather than blaming themselves, but students with high grades, it was felt, would give a more objective report on the professors. So there were a number of professors who were absolutely hated by many students, but the 'high achieving' students thought well of them. So there is a general cultural sense of appealing to a certain group of students rather than trying to make everyone happy.

One could argue that this is a good thing, since it weeds out those students that are serious about their education from those who are not. But it also means that the universities have a tendency to go cheap on their first and second year students and focus on their graduate students and upper year undergraduates. Money won't solve that problem.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Wind Won't Cut It

There's always a lot of talk promoting wind power and solar power as 'alternative' energy sources to coal and other 'dirty' sources of electricity. But the truth of the matter is that wind and solar cannot ever be considered as 'alternatives' because they simply are not.

To say that they are alternatives implies that some day we could replace all our coal fired power plants with wind turbines or solar panels. In truth this is impossible, hence they are not alternatives. Why is it impossible? Because the inherent instability of the supply of wind power means that an alternative supply of electricity must be found that may be turned on and off at whim. Fortunately, we already have a source that can be used: coal. Or alternatively, natural gas, oil or biomass.

Denmark, a nation lauded by many environmentalists as being ahead of the gang when it comes to wind power will, ironically prove my point. This graph, taken from an article published in the Proceedings of the ICE back in 2005 by Hugh Sharman [1], demonstrated the supply of wind power and the electricity demands for a one week period in Denmark.

Figure 1: Electricity Demand (grey) and Wind Generated Electricity (red) over 1 week [1]

As anyone may see, the supply of wind generated electricity was for some days zero. Which means that the electricity would have to come from somewhere else. Generally, in Denmark that place is a coal fired power plant. In fact, as is convincingly argued in many places [1,2] that only 10-14% of the Danish electricity comes from wind turbines, not the 20% floated about by environmentalists. What happens to the excess electricity? It is exported to Scandinavia in the north or to Germany in the south. A useful benefit of being tied into those grids.

This is where we can see the limited usefulness of wind power. If Denmark did not have those markets to which to send electricity it would have to shut down the wind turbines and let them sit idle.

But, one might say, at least the Danish wind farms are reducing the need for electricity from coal right? And in that you'd be correct, partially.

Figure 2: Electricity Generation by Source [3]

It is true that the electricity generated from coal has decreased by an admirable 48 TJ from 1994 to 2007, and that electricity from wind has increased by 22 TJ over the same period. However, electricity from other sources (notably natural gas and the burning of biomass) make up for the rest and as was pointed out above, only 50-70% of that 22 TJ may be counted as contributing to the net decrease in electricity generation from coal. (Note: Solar and hydroelectric power is negligible in Denmark in these years)

So talking of wind turbines as 'alternatives' to coal, natural gas or even nuclear power is untruthful and not backed up by the available data. Until the wind will blow on demand or an alternative method of energy storage is viably combined with wind power it will not replace coal, only reduce the need for it.

[1] Hugh Sharman, "Why Wind Power Works for Denmark" Proceedings of the ICE, Civil Engineering 158, May 2005 [link]
[2] "Analysis of Wind Power in the Danish Electrical Supply in 2005 and 2006" Techconsult [link]
[3] "Danish Annual Energy Statistics 2007" Danish Energy Agency, 2007. [link]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tread on my Dreams

So, a whole bunch of Order of Canada winners have signed a petition to ban nuclear weapons worldwide.

Because banning guns has ended all gun violence, and banning marijuana stopped the drug trade, and.. well you get the idea. Just because you declare something illegal, doesn't mean that people won't do it.

Unfortunately, these misguided recipients are not alone in their foolish push. Many others have argued unconvincingly recently for a total ban on nuclear weapons, and even more worrying, Obama seems to have joined in.

I argued previously that the entire idea of a nuclear weapons ban being at all successful is ridiculous. All it does it makes those states that do have nuclear weapons more powerful since there is literally no deterrent. Imagine a world where North Korea can blackmail the world into doing what it wants by threatening to turn Tokyo into a radioactive wasteland. Imagine a world where Iran could destroy the US navy in the Persian Gulf at whim with a single short range nuclear missile safe in the knowledge that the USA is incapable of serious counterattacks without risking nuclear counterattacks on Israel, US allies in the Middle East or even Europe.

In short, imagine a world that is a lot less safe.

But nations know this, and if the USA was to announce that tomorrow every single nuclear missile or bomb in its possession would be dismantled do you think it would stir India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Syria or anyone else to give up their nuclear programs? Of course not. They'd laugh and continue on their merry way towards developing nuclear weapons. The USA and Russia have been signing deals for years reducing their stockpiles of weapons and still Iran and others have been happy to continue their development of the weapon.

Give you a simple historical example to highlight my point. After World War 2, the USA, the USSR and the Koreas agreed that the Korean peninsula was to be void of any tanks. The US and the South Koreans complied, removing all armour and all anti-tank weapons from the peninsula. At first the USSR also did so, but after a few years, they shipped the North Koreans 150 T-34 tanks in secret. When the North Koreans invaded, they caught everyone by surprise and overran almost the entire peninsula before sufficient support could be brought in to stall and stop the advance. The main problem? The US troops on the ground didn't have the weapons to destroy the tanks.

So what makes anyone think a nuclear weapons ban would be any more successful?

Beyond that point, the article I mentioned at the beginning goes on to slag Canada.

Furthermore, he said, Canada has been seeking an exemption from a Nuclear Suppliers Group ban on uranium enrichment. The G8 nations have decided to place a moratorium on enrichment to discourage Iran and other countries from doing so, but Canada has been seeking an exemption so it could potentially export enriched uranium in the future.

"Canada's been trying to carve out a little exemption for itself," he said. "This is seen as a retrograde step in nuclear disarmament."
Canada isn't seeking an exemption to the G8 ban as this article insinuates. Canada is exempt from the G8 ban because it only applies to trade with non-NPT nations (like India). And as far as I can tell there are no bans on who can enrich uranium, especially since Brazil just joined that club. If Brazil is enriching uranium, why shouldn't Canada be allowed to?

Placing a moratorium on enrichment is an unfair restriction on the development of Canadian nuclear technology and forces Canada to be dependent on other nations for enriched uranium while we remain one of the largest exporters of natural uranium in the world (half the world's uranium comes from Australia and Canada). Canada's AECL proposed years ago to incorporate slightly enriched uranium (about 2% U-235) into its fuel bundles in order to be able to employ thorium as a fuel through the CANFLEX bundles. But without the ability to enrich the uranium it would force Canada to first export natural uranium and then import it right back into the country after its been enriched to be able to employ this technology. Moreover, with the exception of CANDU reactors (or CANDU-like) no one uses natural uranium. So we export uranium to other nations so they can enrich it for use in their PWR reactors.

Sure, Iran might be able to claim the same thing, but Canada has had nuclear reactors for over 50 years and has shown not an iota of interest in developing nuclear weapons ourselves. Our track record speaks for itself. So to claim that Canada's request to be allowed enrichment facilities for uranium is a 'retrograde step' is ridiculous.

EDIT: I remembered that Magnox reactors also used natural uranium.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Once Upon a Belorussian Time...

So something that fascinates me about anti-nuclear groups is their fascination with Chernobyl. To anti-nuclear activists Chernobyl represents something dark and sinister lurking in the shadows of every nuclear power plant in the world. Every time opposition to nuclear energy or nuclear isotopes comes into the public arena it is swiftly followed by the word "Chernobyl". Or alternatively, Three Mile Island.

In some ways they are right, but not for the right reasons. What Chernobyl represents is not the inherent danger of nuclear energy but the culmination of every scientists nightmare, a point where political directions trump science.

The lead up to the Chernobyl disaster featured politicians or scientists under intense political pressures making decisions that weakened or literally bypassed safety features that were intended to keep the reactor safe with blatant disregard for the danger they were putting themselves and the whole region in. Safety concerns were brushed aside, regulations were ignored and even common sense was for a time suspended.

What few people know is that Canada in the 1950s featured a reactor 'disaster' ourselves at the NRX reactor at Chalk River (not to be confused with the NRU reactor there today) that was as bad as Three Mile Island. In that case, incorrect instructions from a supervisor to an operator, followed by a mechanical failure of a safety system led to a situation where the reactor power was increasing rapidly. The incident 'ended' when the second safety system was engaged and the fission reactions were halted. From that point, the 'disaster' continued until a hydrogen explosion contained inside the reactor permanently damaged it, causing large amounts of damage financially, but the radioactive fallout was zilch.

The NRX accident was pretty much one of the worst case scenarios imaginable for the nuclear industry but it was obvious in the preceeding years that mechanical failures of the safety systems were not being treated properly. And still, the layer upon layer of protection stacked into the system worked to prevent any significant fallout.

Three Mile Island was similar. While humans failed to interpret the information coming to the control room correctly the reactor shut itself down as it was programmed to. Unfortunately without any way to cool the reactor a hydrogen explosion would destroy the inside of that reactor as well, causing significant amounts of financial damage.

What made Chernobyl worse than the other two incidents I mentioned was the intense political pressure which led to safety systems being deliberately disabled. They deliberately put themselves in a situation of increased danger because the government had other priorities that they felt were more compelling.

I worded it that way intentionally. Governments should be careful when they deliberately override regulators and instruct nuclear facilities (or any other facilities for that matter) to operate in situations of increased risk because they feel there are other pressing issues. That is what activists should fear, an activist government that sticks its nose into areas where it doesn't belong.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Told You So...



About that Tamilflu?

I knew the WHO would come around to seeing things my way:

The World Health Organization also offered new advice to doctors Friday on the use of antiviral medications such as Tamiflu, saying otherwise healthy with mild to moderate cases do not need the medication.


Some experts have criticized the approach [Eric: giving out flu shots like candy], warning it increases the chances of resistant strains emerging.

Flu expert Hugh Pennington of the University of Aberdeen has called the strategy "a very big experiment" and said England's approach was out of step with the rest of the world.

Now if i could just convince them to finally concede that this whole pig flu thing is overblown we can all go back to our regular business...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Leave Some Things for the Grown-Ups

Okay, I'll make no bones about it, I don't like the Green Party of Canada. Specifically, I think their leader, Elizabeth May, is repulsive (politically speaking and intellectually speaking).

This article practically fawns over her and provides no context for her (and her deputy leader's) claims. So let me go through some of the most erroneous statements.

"In the recent election, the Greens gobbled up votes, bringing them closer to parity with the New Democratic Party.."

Oh yeah, the difference between the two parties shrank by a massive 1.7%. The NDP got 18.18% and the Greens got 6.78%. The Green party is really 'gobbling up' votes and is nearing 'parity' with the NDP. And if you believe that I have oceanfront property in Alberta I want to sell you.

The deputy leader declares:
"We’ve adopted with our party the national policy of the England Greens, which is called the target to win policy"

Remind me how many MPs the Green Party elected in UK? Oh right.. NONE. How many seats did they increase by in the last European election in the UK? Oh right... NONE. So the Green party in Canada wants to follow the so far failed model of the UK's Green party? Be ... my ... guest.

She goes on:
"When the German Greens got into power and formed a coalition government ... they wanted to put Germany on a renewable energy path. The people said you’re going to cost the economy thousands of jobs. In one year after making this move — Germany investing in renewable energy, especially wind — there were more jobs and more stimulus to the economy ... than there were jobs in the nuclear and coal industries combined."

The Green Party's invovlvement in the obliteration of the German nuclear industry is one that should be looked upon with shame, not pride. In closing nuclear reactors the German electricity comes increasingly from sources as 'clean' as coal and gasoline and increases German dependence on Russia and Belarus. Energy prices from wind and solar sources are far higher than nuclear and fail to provide reliable electricity. This is why solar voltaic and wind will never on their own replace all other electricity sources. Its not a matter of building more wind turbines, its a matter of making the wind blow constantly all the time. Good luck with that.

Besides... Elizabeth May herself opposed the Pugwash Wind Farms projects only a few years ago. Why? Because they were ruining the view for the millionaire cottagers like Anne Murray.

She goes on embarassing herself:
"To upgrade her standing as a federal candidate May has been addressing other non-environmental issues by filing releases on her website, commenting on issues like Wafer-gate"

Full stop. Hang on there. May is trying to upgrade her standing by commenting on "wafergate"?!

Anyone who believes that commenting on such a ridiculous non-issue will improve your standing as a politician one way or another can't be taken seriously.

Her next statement defies understanding:
"We have a son at university, and he was saying ‘you know the girls at university, when they ask you what kind of vehicle you drive they want you to be driving a smart car"

Yeah.... riiiiiight. Anyone who has been a university student recently can tell you that this statement isn't true.

The Green Party candidate doesn't help her much neither:
“I think that in this riding there’s certainly deep traditions about voting intentions and that’s what we want to shake,” he said. “We run into things like ‘my grandfather voted this way, my father voted this way and that’s what we’ve always voted.’ Greens, being relatively new on the block, it really takes time and a lot of effort to be able to shake that voting intention.”

When was the Green Party started again? 1983.

When was the Reform party started? 1990ish?

The descendents of the Reform party now occupy the government side of the House of Commons, and the Green Party has yet to occupy a single seat. I think the problem is not that you're 'too new' but maybe 'too radical'. Or with May, 'too stupid'.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

H1N1 Drug Resistant Strains

So we're now learning that a Tamilflu-resistant strain of H1N1 is appearing. Are people seriously surprised by this?

Independent drug resistant cases are appearing all around the world; USA, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and Denmark.

It makes logical sense that given the large amount of vaccines being given out that drug resistant strains of any virus are going to be found and communicated around to the general population eventually making any drugs we have irrelevant. So the question I have is are we really any further ahead? Should we really be spending tens or hundreds millions of dollars buying tens of millions of vaccines to inoculate people when really all we're doing is promoting drug resistant strains? Maybe people should just allow their bodies to develop resistances to yet another flu bug and continue to practice good hygiene rather than relying on drugs to keep them safe.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Canadian Coalitions of Oxymorons

I am always amused by the Canadian propensity for organizing serious groups whose names are oxymorons. The Progressive Conservatives come to mind as one example. The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility is another.

Now, before I say anything more, I should warn you that I am employed in the nuclear industry so I am biased, but I feel that so long as I can justify my arguments it should not be a reason to ignore me completely.

The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility is an organization that is opposed to nuclear power entirely. No exceptions. I feel its an oxymoron because instead of pushing for 'responsible' use of nuclear power as its name suggests, there is no use of nuclear power that they consider to be 'responsible' except those measures to eliminate it entirely. I learned about it after reading an article in the Globe and Mail concerning Canada's nuclear know-how being in danger of extinction.

Or something like that.

The CCNR pushes a lot of theories trying to make nuclear energy look dangerous, even postulating in one article back in the 80s that the chance of a nuclear meltdown in Canada (similar to Chernobyl) is approximately 1 in 15. Since then roughly 20 years have passed so the expected number of nuclear meltdowns in Canada alone should have been 1.33. Since there's been not a single one anywhere in the world in the last 20 years I'd say that their calculations are busted.

The CCNR also argues that Chernoyl like events can happen in Canada, which is a laughable suggestion. Chernobyl occurred because of a massive top-to-bottom failure in training, scientific supervision and common sense. Simply put, the people running Chernobyl decided that they wanted to push the envelope of what was allowed for the reactor's operation. When safety systems kicked in to prevent them from doing so, they manually overrode them one at a time until they had disabled pretty much all their safety systems. They then ran the reactor to the point where they actually had no information about the status of the reactor itself, specifically the reactivity in the core. Little wonder that a few seconds later the whole thing exploded.

The CCNR points to events like the 1958 Chalk River 'disaster' as an example of Canadian-made nuclear Chernobyls. But in that incident too the fault lay with inexperienced operators, human errors and a failure of maintenance on crucial safety systems. Canada learned from the 1958 event however and reactors today in Canada have strong mechanical safety systems. Moreover, ultimately the radioactive 'fallout' from the 1958 event was limited.

So suffice it to say that I'm not someone who thinks highly of the CCNR's opinions on nuclear issues. So when in the article mentioned above the CCNR advocates using accelerators to produce medical isotopes I'm a little skeptical, however from experience I know that it is possible to create medical isotopes from them. But not on the scale that is necessary, moreover the types of isotopes that are possible to be created remain limited and the method untested. So I would be wary of the price tags that are being thrown around.

Still, the CCNR is right about one thing, there's a lot of nuclear reactors around the world that are ultimately going to be decommissioned. That's why I'm feeling confident that my job is going to be around for a long, long time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sample Sizes and Studies

Fascinating news if you're reading the Toronto Star. Apparently they've found that psychopaths have a 'pothole' in their brain activity. This the Star exclaims breathlessly, could lead to treatment of psychopaths or even early detection and crime prevention!

Wonderful news. If it was worth the paper it is written on.

What the Toronto Star doesn't tell you is that the sample size for this study was a whole 9 people. That's right, nine. You can literally count the number of sampled patients on your hands. Don't even need to take off your socks to count toes. But the Toronto Star doesn't tell you that, because then you might get suspicious about the results. Fortunately, other sources of news are far more responsible and do.

To explain my skepticism consider the humble penny. Ideally, when you flip the coin there is a 50% chance of the coin either ending up being heads or tails. Does that mean if you flip the coin twice you'll get one head and one tail? Of course not. You might get two heads or two tails.

The same logic applies to scientific studies.

Sure its possible that the studies results are valid and correct. However with a sample size of 9 it is impossible to know for sure. So all we have is another study that might show that there is a possible linkage between brain activity X and certain personalities.

Pardon me if I'm not impressed.

Big Brother?

I mentioned in a previous post that the only way to de-legitimize and ultimately ban a news source you don't like is to convince the courts and/or a sufficient number of people that it is propagating hate. I also mentioned that numerous Democrats were attempting to do this with Fox News by accusing it of fostering anti-abortion sentiment or anti-Obama sentiment. I was worried at the time that the Democrats were attempting to muzzle the only media source that is seriously critical of Obama and the White House since that would indicate a serious authoritarian streak.

What I didn't expect was that the White House would brazenly ask Americans to report on one another. By asking citizens to forward emails and conversations concerning health care that run counter to what the White House and the Democrats want they are effectively introducing the beginnings of a totalitarian system into the USA. Sure, one could argue that the White House is being 'proactive' in countering what it sees as 'misinformation'. But as others are already pointing out, the White House and Obama could use this list to create an 'enemy database' from which they could punish people. Pitting 'loyal' citizens against the 'disloyal' ones.

Don't believe it couldn't happen in America? It happened at least once in Canada already. A man who answered a polling question from the Liberal party back in the late 1990s was listed in their database as being 'hostile' to the Liberal party. When the same man called his Liberal MP in order to demand action on a certain issue pertaining to his veteran's pension he was told flat out that he would not be helped because he did not vote Liberal. Of course, when the media found out they had a field day, the MP was forced to act and the man's cause got national attention. But even in this case, the Liberal party only knew what the man had decided to tell them. In the current case south of the border the government might know what you told your buddy at the water cooler at work. Or they might get that email you sent to a few of your buddies.

But it doesn't stop there. The Democrats have taken to using dangerous hyperbole in attacking people with whom they do not agree politically. Obama started the trend long ago by angrily attacking people who opposed his bailout of the auto companies as 'speculators'. He continued it by attacking the Cambridge police as 'stupid'. Now they are continuing it by attacking the health care protestors saying that they are 'Nazis' and accusing them of being 'bought'. They have been degraded as 'mobs' and 'thugs'. Some of which may have some truth, but all of which is inappropriate to say as President or his representatives.

After all, protesters camped out in front of Bush's ranch for years attacking him. Directors created movies depicting his murder. And practically everywhere Bush went he was met by protesters calling him 'the devil', burning him in effigy and calling on him to be prosecuted for this or that. But never did you see Bush attack the protesters and call on his fellow citizens to report on one another.

This may be change.. but its not the change we should want.