Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Daiichi nuclear meltdown and the need for deep change

What do you do when the powers-that-be are steering society in the wrong direction? What do you do when the CEO of the company you work for is making horrible stupid decisions that you see will bankrupt the company? What do you do if the leader of your religion are acting contrary to the teachings of your religion? What do you do if you feel your job, career, and lifestyle is incompatible with your vision of the way life should be lived?

Those are the same question, just placed at different levels.

A couple years ago I worked for a large multinational software company on a software product used by millions of software developers around the world. Management began making horrible decisions I thought undermined the software and seemed to doom the company. Indeed that company ended up croaking, and was bought up by another company, who made even worse decisions. I was in a leadership position and had a choice. I could have hunkered down (the recession of 2009 was coming) doing whatever the bosspeople told me to do. Or, I could take a stand for what I believe in. I took that stand, speaking up to my manager (and others) about the wrong decisions. I was eventually assigned to work on the project I thought shouldn't have existed, and had a horrible few months trying to do my job while disagreeing completely with the goal I was forced to work toward. After six months of this pain I was laid off when the company was beginning its death spiral and laying off a boat load of people in a desperation move.

Today we have a confluence of several events going on which look just as wrong to me, and I hope to many other people. These events collectively call us to question what is our response when the leaders are making insane decisions.

What do we the people do?

I suppose the first question is - what's going so wrong? Well, financial meltdown, peak oil, global warming, tea party idiots and theocracy idiots threatening democracy, nuclear meltdown, corporate interests running roughshod over the people, faux media/news outlets used to lie to and manipulate we the people, and more.

Some of those things are relatively minor only in contrast to the others which clearly threaten the survival of humanity.

What do we the people do? What do I do individually?

Do we say the problems are too large? As individuals we can easily say "I'm just ____, who am I to do anything about this"? But if that's what we all do then nobody will stand up. The wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East right now are due to one fruit seller in rural Tunisia who took a stand. His stand was self-immolation, not exactly the recommended method of getting attention to problems, still it demonstrates the power individuals sometimes have. Perhaps the better example is the peaceful non-violent protests in Egypt and Wisconsin where large numbers of people banded together.

Do we deny the problems? Do we stay numbed out by the latest false celebrity scandal, or the latest sports upset, or the latest twist in hair styles, or the latest new shade of black? Those are some methods used by the powers-that-be to keep we the people from noticing what's really going on, by filling our lives with nonsense fake tea-pot-sized scandals.

What do we do? You, the one who is reading this, what do you do? You, the one who is writing this, what do you do? You, the one who doesn't know this blog post exists, what do you do? You, the one forced to read this by a friend who thought it was funny, what do you do?

Many people think the world is going in a wrong direction. Unfortunately there's a fair bit of disagreement over just what the problems are, what constitutes a wrong direction, and what would be the best direction to take. As the French say, Vive la Differance. Except that the stakes are high and it behooves we the people to make the best decision possible given the deeply fractured splits.

Unfortunately some of those splits were manufactured by corporate interests who now have free(er) reign due to that idiotic Citizens United decision last year.

In any case our world situation calls for action and change. Change we can really believe in and makes a real difference. Change that's wholly unlike the retread appeasements Obama is now giving to the corporate interests after inspiring us with the Audacity of Hope and Change we were supposed to Believe in.

Given the widely split set of ideas out there all I can suggest is to get engaged. To stand for what YOU believe in. To question what the bosspeople tell you, to question what the goal really is, and to question whether you believe in the goal the bosspeople want you to believe in.

See also:

Change starts "here"; Change starts with "you"; Change starts with "me"

Stand up for Real Change

This world doesn't have to become an uninhabitable nuclear radiation poisoned wasteland

Higher Purpose: Japans earthquake and nuclear crisis asks us what we really want

Caldicott and Monbiot debate Coal and Nuclear energy on Democracy Now

Today, Democracy Now hosted a debate contrasting Coal and Nuclear Energy between British journalist George Monbiot and Dr. Helen Caldicott. The first part was excellent but towards the end it turned a bit caustic. It's clear they like and respect each other, but that they have strongly divided points of view.

To summarize their points:

Caldicott: Radiation and radioactive wastes from nuclear power are incredibly dangerous. When a particle is inhaled it will kill a few cells and cause mutations in surrounding cells that will cause cancer a few years later. There is enough nuclear material in the Japanese plants to poison the whole planet. The danger from Nuclear power is too great.

Monbiot: In the rush to shun nuclear power he's afraid (certain) the powers-that-be will turn back to Coal to provide electricity. It would be the ditching of a bad technology to one that's horridly worse.

  • George Monbiot, British journalist and author. He is a columnist with the The Guardian (U.K.) and most recently wrote the article “Why Fukushima Made Me Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power."
  • Helen Caldicott, world-renowned anti-nuclear advocate, author and pediatrician. She has spent decades warning of the medical hazards posed by nuclear technologies. She is the co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

GEORGE MONBIOT: ... But I’m very worried that the global response to what’s happening in Fukushima will be to shut down nuclear power stations around the world and to cancel future nuclear power stations, and that what will happen is that they will be replaced by coal. Now, coal is hundreds of times more dangerous than nuclear power, not just because of climate change, though, of course, climate change is a big one, but also because of industrial accidents and because of the impacts of pollution on local people.

... what I’m calling for here is not complacency. ... I’m calling for perspective, and I’m saying that we must not replace a bad technology with a much, much worse one, because, unfortunately, that is what’s likely to happen.

HELEN CALDICOTT: ...The Guardian yesterday reported that Unit No. 2 had actually melted down. The fuel had melted through the reactor vessel onto the concrete floor below. That is a problem because the zirconium in the fuel reacts with the concrete, and it could form a huge hydrogen bubble like happened at Three Mile Island. There could be a huge hydrogen explosion, which would rupture the containment vessel, and out of Unit 2 would come huge plumes of radiation, which, if the wind is blowing towards the south, could devastate much of Japan forever, or it could be blown across the Pacific towards the American—North American continent and around the globe, indeed, and pollute the whole of the northern hemisphere.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I agree that it’s a very parlous situation indeed. It does look as if it’s going to melt through the reactor floor, effectively, and onto the concrete, in which case exactly the scenario she’s talking about could take place.

I would disagree, though, that it will devastate a large part of Japan forever, which I think was a term that she used. I think that’s an overstatement of the impacts of the radiation. There’s no question that it will cause mass evacuation. It may cause health effects for some people.

... cherry-picking studies, plucking out work which is very much against the scientific consensus. When it comes to low-level radiation, unfortunately, environmentalists have been responsible for quite a similar approach by making what appear to be unjustifiable and excessive claims for the impact of that radiation. ...

HELEN CALDICOTT: ... A new report from the New York Academy of Sciences has just translated 5,000 papers from Russian into English. ... Up to a million people have already died from Chernobyl, and people will continue to die from cancer for virtually the rest of time. What we should know is that a millionth of a gram of plutonium, or less, can induce cancer, or will induce cancer. Each reactor has 250 kilos, or 500 pounds, of plutonium in it. You know, there’s enough plutonium in these reactors to kill everyone on earth.

... George, I really appreciate your writing, and I understand your concern about global warming. ... You’ve bought the propaganda from the nuclear industry. They say it’s low-level radiation. That’s absolute rubbish. If you inhale a millionth of a gram of plutonium, the surrounding cells receive a very, very high dose. Most die within that area, because it’s an alpha emitter. The cells on the periphery remain viable. They mutate, and the regulatory genes are damaged. Years later, that person develops cancer. Now, that’s true for radioactive iodine, that goes to the thyroid; cesium-137, that goes to the brain and muscles; strontium-90 goes to bone, causing bone cancer and leukemia. It’s imperative, George, because you’re highly intelligent and a very important commentator, that you understand internal emitters and radiation, and it’s not low level to the cells that are exposed. Radiobiology is imperative to understand these days. I do suggest, humbly, that if you read my book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, which I think I’ve tried to send you once, you’ll learn about that.

HELEN CALDICOTT: ... Nuclear power, George, creates massive quantities of radioactive waste. There is no way to put it on earth that’s safe. As it leaks into the water over time, it will bioconcentrate in the food chains, in the breast milk, in the fetuses, that are thousands of times more radiosensitive than adults. One x-ray to the pregnant abdomen doubles the incidence of leukemia in the child. And over time, nuclear waste will induce epidemics of cancer, leukemia and genetic disease, and random compulsory genetic engineering. And we’re not the only species with genes, of course. It’s plants and animals. So, this is an absolute catastrophe, the likes of which the world has never seen before. ...

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Panic over water in Japan based on official lies or on official confusion?

There's quite a bit of panic in Japan (and elsewhere) about radioactive fallout. One of the fears is the effect on water, and in Japan there has been panic-buying of bottled water (See Tapped, a look at the dangers of bottled water for an excellent movie looking at the bottled water industry - while bottled water is generally a bad idea, as an expediency in an emergency it could be a good idea). I just watched a youtube video that purported to be a Japanese man who'd just received news that Tokyo was being evacuated, that Tokyo residents were warned to not drink the water, and he was in a panic over the impending death of the millions of residents in Tokyo. Unfortunately the video itself may be a hoax because it's an australian overdubbing his words over someone else's video and we don't know what the original video was truly about. On the other hand it's illustrative of what could happen as well as the motive behind the panic buying.

A NY Times article from Friday talks about conflicting advice given by Japanese officials: "whiplash of advisories on the safety of tap water in the face of tests showing the presence of radioactive iodine" and "warned Wednesday that infants should not consume tap water, only to rescind the advisory yesterday when radiation levels tested lower" and "initial warnings that infants under a year of age should not drink tap water was based on a government warning that tests detected 210 becquerels per liter of radioactive iodine-13. The Japanese standard for infants' exposure is not more than 100 becquerels per liter, while the tolerance for adults is 300 becquerels per liter". Another NY Times article talked of panic buying, and officials puzzling over the source of the contamination: "Despite the frequent rain in recent days, it was not entirely clear why the levels of iodine were so high, said a senior Western nuclear executive, noting that the prevailing breezes seemed to be pushing radiation out to sea." As well as "The 1986 accident at Chernobyl caused an epidemic of thyroid cancer — 6,000 cases so far — in people who were exposed as children. The culprit was milk produced by cows that had grazed on grass heavily carpeted by fallout. The epidemic could probably have been prevented if people in the region had been told not to drink milk and if they had been given potassium iodide."

Clearly a threat to the water supply is a critical thing. Humans need continual water intake to live, and rapidly die without water. Psychologically speaking it's a core survival threat making the panic reaction understandable.

Fortunately the Japanese eat a lot of seaweed which helps to protect against radioactive iodine. But that doesn't help against the other radioactive stuff escaping from the reactors.

Let's get back to the conflicting advice being given by Japanese officials and the panic reaction. There's a meme out there that officials are lying to us to keep panic minimized. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't.

For example an AP news report says "Part of the nation's key radiation warning system was out of service as the U.S. braced for possible exposure to the fallout from a nuclear crisis in Japan. While no dangerous levels of radiation have reached American shores, the test of the monitoring network has spurred some lawmakers to question whether it can adequately safeguard the country against future disasters." The EPA "did not immediately say why the monitors were inoperable, but did not fix them until several days after low levels of radiation began drifting toward the mainland U.S". That the "EPA relies in part on trained volunteers to regularly change out air filters on the RadNet monitors and mail them to a federal lab in Alabama where the data gets a detailed analysis a few days later. Volunteers are also tasked with alerting EPA if something goes wrong with the machine."

Radiation monitoring equipment that happened to be "out of service" just when needed? This is fuel for the panic mongerers among us. That network was designed for the Cold War and meant in part to detect nuclear bomb tests. I'm wondering whether it had funding appropriate to keep it reliably operable especially given the long time since open air nuclear tests have been conducted. But people in panic might not have the wherewithal to ponder the different interpretations of this information, and instead just leap to the worst possible assumptions.

In the U.S. the fear is different than in Tokyo. Here, it's whether significant radioactive particles will make it through the jetstream and hit the west coast and beyond. Trace amounts have been detected as far as in Europe, but would significant amounts get here? This monitoring network would tell us if there's a problem, but this failure would feed the "they're lying to us to keep us from panicking" meme going around. But read the article and it's clear RadNet was not a high profile project and was run by volunteers, so is it reasonable to expect it RadNet to be a highly reliable source of information?

Panicky people don't always make good decisions. Especially when they're panicking over such a basic thing as water supply. I get that.

See also:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Do you ever think about how they determine movie ratings? Neither do I. What if the movie ratings system were being used to skew our society in a certain way? The movies are a large part of the national conversation in the U.S. and the content of the movies in some way influences the course the country takes. What if the movie ratings were awarded by a secretive board of people, with almost no right of appeal, where the head of the organization was a high ranking former Washington insider (an assistant to a U.S. President), and determined directly how widely a movie will be distributed (or not)?

This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a deep look at the MPAA, the motion picture ratings system, and the effect it has had on certain movies.

Primarily however the movies being affected were highly sexual. But a question asked several times was, why are the movies with sex in them given tough ratings when the movies with extreme violence do not? Why is it bad to show sex scenes to children, and not bad to show violence to them?

The U.S. already has an extreme culture of violence. Maybe the movies reflect that culture of violence, as does the ratings system, or maybe the movies and the rating system is skewing the country into more violence?

In one scene of the movie they show a clip of the Columbine killers roaming their high school, and then discuss the connection between movie violence and real life violence. While the exact mechanism isn't 100% clear they asserted that it's widely recognized by experts that the repeated viewing of graphic violence affects behavior.

Many of the film makers interviewed had made movies with intense sexual content, in some cases earning NC-17 ratings for very beautiful movies which happened to show women having extreme pleasurable orgasms. It seemed to them that the ratings board's problem was with the extreme pleasure. Again, this is backwardsly weird unless the point of the board was to encourage violence and downplay other memes and images.

One track of the movie is interviews with several film-makers about their experience with the rating of their movies as well as the appeals process. For example the maker of one movie described how her movie earned an NC-17 because it showed pubic hair, and puzzingly asked how in Basic Instinct they got an R rating while showing Sharon Stone's vagina full on. Over and over the film ratings board was described as fickle, and arbitrary.

They also explained how while the rating board is kept secret from the public supposedly to prevent undue influence, the rating board members do have direct contact with film makers.

In the other track in the movie, a pair of private detectives were hired to conduct an in-depth investigation. They parked outside the MPAA building, took license plates numbers, placed phone calls, went to lunch at places raters were having lunch, raided the trash cans of raters, and so on. Over time they were able to learn the identities of many raters, get background information, show pictures, and so on.

Supposedly the raters are "parents" of children, but in practice many of the raters either don't have children or their children are grown. Supposedly because raters are parents, that their ratings will act to protect children. But it's clear this is bogus.

A string of facts are strung throughout the movie about Jack Valenti, the chairman of the organization. He had been a high level Presidential staffer and was suddenly sent by Washington to work in Hollywood and to set up this ratings board. The implication is that Valenti was sent by Washington to establish political control over the movies Hollywood produces.

In short the movie presents a censorship board that does their best to present an image of helping movie makers understand how the content of their movies affect the audience the movies will find. That strikes me as I write it as a very curious phrasing, but hearing it in the movie sounded more natural. The affect of a rating (NC-17 for instance) is to limit when/where the movie can be shown. An NC-17 and it simply won't be showable in most theaters and be limited only in places that specialize in THOSE movies. While it's movies about sex which usually earn these ratings, and our society has strange issues around sexuality, it's a really important question to ponder... why doesn't violent imagery receive the same treatment?

What do you think? Please leave a comment below.

Buy: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ralph Nader Advocates Phasing Out Nuclear Power Industry: With extreme hyperbole

Appearing with the tag "Anti-Nuclear Activist" under his name, Ralph Nader appeared on Democracy Now to deliver a searing demand to completely phase out the nuclear industry. This of course was in the wake of the Japanese 9.0 earthquake, which triggered a large Tsunami, which triggered a nuclear crisis. While he had a lot of good things to say, he also over-hyped his position and said a few outright falsehoods.

This is where he started:

RALPH NADER: The Japanese disaster has ended whatever nuclear renaissance is being considered here in the United States. The problem is that people have got to get more involved, because the government and the industry will defend nuclear power in the United States to the last mutation. They are representing a closed, monetized mind that does not have options for revision, which true science should provide for. Secretary Chu, Energy Secretary, has refused for two years to meet with the leading critics of nuclear power, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth and other groups. He has met with nuclear business interests regularly, and he has written articles touting nuclear power.

Uh, okay.. Let's unpack this a bit. Does this event mean it has "ended" the "nuclear renaissance"?

It appears to be true that a lot of people are alarmed about nuclear power. Because of this event.

It's true that the Obama Administration is pushing for nuclear power. On the day of the earthquake Obama held a press conference in which he described Nuclear Power as a "Clean Energy Source" and called for increased use of nuclear power. (see: Obama proposes nuclear power expansion while Japan has nuclear crisis and News Conference by President Obama, March 11, 2011)

Recent history is full of we the people being sold on crazy ideas. It seems plausible the powers that be will sell us again on nuclear power. Ralph seems to understand this when he says "The problem is that people have got to get more involved, because the government and the industry will defend nuclear power in the United States to the last mutation."

What we’re seeing here is 110 or so operating nuclear plants in the United States, many of them aging, many of them infected with corrosion, faulty pipes, leaky pumps and combustible materials.

He went on to say this has been documented by data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assembled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. But rather than describe that data he talks about how unevacuable are large cities like New York City, and I suppose he's envisioning the skyscrapers as becoming mausoleums for the people now living there?

Why are we playing Russian roulette with the American people for nuclear plants whose principal objective is simply to boil water and produce steam?

Does he understand engineering well enough to ponder what mechanisms could convert heat into electricity? One of those mechanisms is using the heat to convert water into steam that runs a turbine to generate electricity. In the 1960's (when this design was created) there might not have been other methods for converting heat to electricity. I wouldn't be surprised to learn the typical coal fired or natural gas fired power plant also uses heat to create steam that turns a turbine. Ask yourself, if you have heat how are you going to create electricity out of it?

national security problems, for every nuclear plant is a prime target

It would be cool if he said more about this. But instead he goes on to

It affects our civil liberties. It endangers our workers.

Which again would be cool if he explained but he went directly into explaining that nuclear power is unfinancable because it's too risky. The nuclear industry demands 100% "taxpayer guarantees" from governments. In the wake of the 2008-9 financial fiasco with taxpayer guarantee of the toxic financial industry, this is a line of reasoning which should cause us to stop in our tracks. But he doesn't even explain this very well but instead moves on to list the White House phone numbers, encouraging people to demand hearings.

We must no longer license any new nuclear plants. We should shut down the ones like Indian Point. How many people know that Hillary Clinton, as senator, and Andrew Cuomo, as attorney general, demanded that Indian Point be shut down? That doesn’t matter to the monetized minds in Washington, D.C. We also should prepare a plan ...for the phase-out of the entire industry.

I'm afraid he didn't make a case. He threw out a tremendously tightly packed line-up of statements without explanation.

To be clear - there are a lot of problems with this and I largely agree with him. But just looking at what he said, he doesn't give the evidence to support the suggestion he's making.

He also doesn't give a plan for how to power our society if all nuclear plants are removed from the scene. Abandoning nuclear means somehow replacing that electricity with something - but what? Coal? Natural gas? C'mon...

This is institutional insanity, and I urge the people in this country to wake up before they experience what is now going on in northern Japan: uninhabitable territory, thousands dead, hundreds of thousands at risk of cancer, enormous economic loss. And for what?

Here's where he really lost me with hyperbole. Institutional insanity aside - does the Japan situation yet have "uninhabitable territory" or "thousands dead"? Really? We haven't seen the end of this yet and we do not know yet whether this will be true.

The thousands of dead in this case were from the earthquake and tsunami, not from the nuclear accident. Is Ralph confused?

It's not yet known whether this territory will be uninhabitable, or whether they'll be able to gain enough control over the situation and safely entomb the radioactive material. This is not the same situation as Chernobyl.

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