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.