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.