Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nuclear doubts

George Monbiot's recent post on nuclear power is a valuable contribution to the debate. My doubts include the following:
If measures taken now to prevent climate breakdown are already 'too little too late' then how wise is it to build a new generation of nuclear plants for societies likely to be stretched to near or beyond their ability to cope with disruptive change?  In a more turbulent world, regulatory systems are likely to be even more vulnerable to capture by corporate profiteers (privatising gains, nationalising losses) while security systems are likely to be more vulnerable to breach by hostile actors. What could be the actual costs of just one major terrorist incident at a nuclear power plant in a densely populated country?

What if PV does end up costing $1 per Watt in ten years or so (recent breakthroughs suggest this may be possible, albeit very far from certain), while the cost of nuclear power does not decline significantly from its current level (something that may be quite likely, especially if the costs of security measures and waste management are taken into account)?
I would be glad to see these doubts dispelled/shown to be mistaken.

P.S. a view (pdf) from Paul Mobbs

P.S. 1 April: John Vidal says the actual impacts of nuclear accidents are much worse than is often claimed. Evidence or anecdote? Testament to psychological impacts rather than quantifiable physical ones?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Libyan dilemmas

Even if one's instincts are to help those fighting Gadaffi, it is no longer enough just to see it as a struggle of goodies against baddies. For it is precisely that simplification that has led to unreal fantasies about who we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fantasies that persist today, and which our leaders still cling to - because they give the illusion that we are in control.
-- from Goodies and Baddies by Adam Curtis
Some things are clear, though. In Benghazi, an influential businessman named Sami Bubtaina expressed a common sentiment: “We want democracy. We want good schools, we want a free media, an end to corruption, a private sector that can help build this nation, and a parliament to get rid of whoever, whenever, we want.” These are honorable aims. But to expect that they will be achieved easily is to deny the cost of decades of insanity, terror, and the deliberate eradication of civil society.
-- from Who are the rebels? by Jon Lee Anderson


As recalled in a recent post here, Werner Herzog distinguishes between what he calls "accountant's truth" and "ecstatic truth." Interesting to note, then, that (as Richard Brody notes) Frederick Wiseman (who is supposedly among the most realist and non-inverventionist of documentary film makers) calls his films works of imagination, and says, "They have nothing to do with reality!"  Is he serious?
Wiseman likens his work to that of a director or writer of fictions: "I ask myself the same questions of narration, of abstraction. Like them, I have to find a dramaturgy."

Nuke notes

The most pertinent challenges, argue Hugh Gusterson and Elizabeth Kolbert, may be regulatory and political (not to mention economic) rather than technical.

Julia Whitty has hair-raising primer on nuclear pollution of the oceans.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Best of both worlds

Tim Flannery notes:
In the 1950s the Richfield Oil Corporation was pondering whether nuclear power might play a role in helping to exploit Alberta's tar sands. The company executives reasoned that if it could expode a series of two-kiloton bombs below the 30,000 square kilometre tar-sands deposit, the heat of the explosion would vitrify the sand, coating the cavity and thus creating glass., while a peculiarity of the chemical structure o the tar would cause it to liquefy. When cooled, the tar would retain its more runny consistency and so fill the cavities. Three hundred billion barrels of crude oil would be made accessible by the process, the experts claimed, with no hazard from radioactivity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Two useless things I learned today

Thing One:  The young Moon rotated very fast.  The Earth's gravity created a bulge in its surface seven meters high on the part closest to the Earth. You should imagine a wave traveling across the Moon's rocky surface. Eventually, the wave slowed the Moon to a stop, which is why we never see its dark side.
Thing Two:  In medieval Europe it was believed that pulling up a mandrake root (which was valued for its supposed medicinal or magical properties) would kill you if you heard the root scream. That bit I knew already. What I did not know was that the recommended solution was for a man to put beeswax in his ears, tie a dog to the stem of the mandrake, and beat the dog while sounding loudly on a trumpet so that the he would not hear the scream of the root as the dog ran away and dragged it out of the ground.
Both things I learned courtesy of the BBC (Brian Cox and David Attenborough respectively). Testament to the BBC as a civilisational institution. (I am being serious.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Gaddafi and Assange

As Steve Coll, among others, has noted, Wikileaks may have helped spark the Tunisian revolution and Arab spring (although other factors, not least the price of food, probably played a bigger role). Certainly, Wikileaks has been a target of vituperation by Muammar Gaddafi, a current focus of popular revolt. But the Libyan leader and the Australian hacker may share more than either realize. Indeed, the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is more like Julian Assange than he is like Charlie Sheen.

Gadaffi's vision of Jamahiriya is of direct democracy: all power is to reside in the people while government is swept away. Assange also dreams of demolishing state and corporate conspiracy.

Gadaffi sees conspirators against him everywhere: Al Qaeda and the U.S. government are working in concert against him. Assange reportedly sees a Jewish conspiracy against him (despite support from Alan Dershowitz, among others).

[To be fair to Assange, he is not the only rather confused person out there: as Jonathan Freedland notes, LSE Director Sir Howard Davies has suggested an equivalence between Muammar Gaddafi and George Soros.]

OK, I'm just kidding (a bit). For a more serious analysis of Assange's philosophy and politics see part one and part two of a series on ABC's Philosophy Zone.

P.S. 10 March: another view on Assange from John Pilger. Interesting, although I disagree with the implication of Pilger's first sentence that there should be no intervention in Libya in the form of a no fly zone so long as it is approved by the UN, the OIC etc. See Kristof, Campbell and Sands.