Fukushima: eating my words

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2011

OK, score one for the pessimist realists among you; looks like Fukushima was a lot messier than we were told, which makes me look a bit of a fool for claiming otherwise. Mea culpa.

That said, I think my overall point still stands: the circumstances of said accident were exceptional, and the course of wisdom would surely be to view it as a cautionary lesson rather than an excuse to completely write off a technology that could be of great use in the medium-term. Yes, it’s a mess that’ll take a long time to clean up… but nuclear has still killed or injured far less people per teraWatt-hour than coal.

Is it still OK to laugh at our fear of laughing at scary stuff?

Paul Raven @ 29-03-2011

I’m not sure, but I think I’m going to do it anyway. Via SlashDot, CNN reports that some European TV networks are yanking some old Simpsons episodes from the rerun carousel in case the nuclear-disaster related plots upset anyone in light of the Fukushima crisis. (Bonus and presumably unintentional lulz: check the URL for the CNN piece! Nuclear jokes? Ew!)

Look, I’m no expert on humour (understatement of the century, yeah), but I don’t think it takes an expert or a particularly thorough survey to say that a great deal of the stuff we laugh at is funny because we’re afraid of it. This is the root emotion behind unacceptable ‘othering’ humour like racism or sexism (The Other must be mocked, so that we can feel larger and stronger than it!) and disablism (we make tasteless jokes about less able people because, deep down, we’re terrified to think how badly we’d cope with the same disability); such fears divide person from person, and should be erased rather than strengthened.

But fear of disasters, of the world itself? I think that’s a uniting emotion rather than a divisive one; our fragility in the face of chance events is one of the clearest indications that we’re all in the same lifeboat.

To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between jokes about a specific event (a stand-up comic making light of Fukushima right now would be pretty tasteless, for instance, and making light of the human suffering caused by 9/11 fits in the same bracket) and making jokes about generalised existential risks. There have been nuclear crises before now; if there hadn’t been, jokes about them probably wouldn’t be as prevalent as they are. But does a fresh disaster merit this kneejerk cotton-woolling response? Is there a period after which nuke jokes will become acceptable again, and if so, how long is it? When will it become acceptable to run shows or movies that have images of the World Trade Centre in them, or should we go back and sanitise everything, airbrushing the WTC out of history like the cigarettes of the stars of the silver screen era?

Isn’t humour one of our best ways of coming to terms with the essentially hostile nature of the world we live in? Can we not rely on ourselves and the reactions of others to police the boundaries of taste, or should we leave that to the media companies, whose definitions of taste seem increasingly defined by their need to pander to dwindling audiences defined by political demographics, or to governments (whose political motivations are even clearer than those of the media)?

I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know the answers. I feel instinctively that there’s a difference between making jokes about the suffering of specific individuals and making jokes about the sorts of suffering that might possibly assail any of us at any time… but that’s easy for me to say from the privileged position of having never lost someone close to me through a natural disaster or act of terrorism. But to come at it from the other end, if we start deciding that some risks are too serious or topical to make light of, where does the line get drawn? How many people have to be offended for a joke to be considered tasteless? Just one? A certain percentage?

And what would we have left to laugh at?

We can only hope

Paul Raven @ 23-09-2010

nuclear weapons may come to be seen as a strange fetishistic behavior by nations at a certain period in history. They were insanely expensive and thoroughly useless. Their only function was to keep a bizarre form of score.” – Richard Rhodes [link and video via Chairman Bruce]

Thorium: the new nuclear?

Paul Raven @ 31-08-2010

Via NextBigFuture, the UK’s foremost conservative middle-class broadsheet hopes President Obama can leapfrog red tape and stop the momentum of the fossil fuel industry dead in its tracks (without any explosive dissipation of said momentum, one assumes) by rushing through research on thorium-based nuclear reactors:

There is no certain bet in nuclear physics but work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday – produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

“There are (obviously!) no magic bullets, but this might just be a magic bullet.” Riiiight. Nonetheless, onwards:

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. “It’s the Big One,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,” he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.

OK, sounding reassuring so far. So why haven’t we been doing anything with this before?

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. “They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology,” he said.

Those dastardly French! I might have known! Where’s Churchill now we need him most blahblahblahlingeringcryptoracismandEuropanic

And now, having revved up the patriotic emotions and ecological consumer-guilt of the reader, here’s the venture capital pitch:

The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation.

Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.

Yeah, I know, I’m being snarky… reading The Telegraph just has that effect on me, I’m afraid. But beneath the coded writing is a story we’ve covered before: thorium really is (at least in theory) cheaper and safer than all the other nuclear fission options, and much less sci-fi-pie-sky than fusion. But as pointed out above, someone needs to invest big money (and/or big political backing) to get it working and viable.

So, The Telegraph gamely suggests Mr Obama kick-start a modern-day Manhattan Project to that end… forgetting, perhaps, that the impetus for the Manhattan Project was somewhat more pressing and politically expedient than the abstract and contentious doom du jour of Peak Hydrocarbon, that there weren’t massive entrenched business interests lobbying and obfuscating against it, and that America as a nation actually had a few cents to rub together at the time.

Though, to their credit, they do invite the US to team up with China to get the job done. The Telegraph staff and readership will doubtless cheer on from the sidelines; if that’s not enough to get things moving, well, I don’t know what is.

DIY nuclear round-up

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

Given the horrific costs of energy at the moment, you might be thinking about ways to cut your household bills. Maybe you could build your own nuclear reactor? [image by brndnprkns]

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it’s so simple that a boy scout could do it, and sourcing your fuel materials is no more difficult than stumbling across them whichever scrapyard they’ve ended up in (if you can’t cut a deal with the whoever currently holds the post of Global Atomic Boogie-Man, that is). Try not to think about the waste problem, though; by the time your tiny reactor has produced enough to worry about, maybe someone will have decided whether storing it on the moon or an asteroid is the better option.

If you don’t have the spare real estate for a backyard nuclear fission reactor, I guess you’ll have to settle for a basement fusion reactor [via HackADay]. Impossible? Actually, no – though the “fusor” reactor type is considered to be effectively useless for large-scale commercial power generation.

However, the fusion reactor project proposed to the government by Research Councils UK would supposedly take only twenty years of R&D and construction before it could match the output of current commercial power stations [via NextBigFuture]… which is a long wait, sure, but an almost totally clean energy generation technology is surely worth it. All this assumes that the National Ignition Facility research continues to produce the expected results, of course; after all, fusion – much like AI – has been “just around the corner” ever since it was conceptualised.

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