Saturday, March 10, 2012

Fukushima: one year on and a continuing disaster

Fukushima: hit by earthquake and tsunami
March 11, 2011
A year since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, so we can expect a dose of anniversary articles. Scientists for Global Responsibility have published an overview by Dr Ian Fairlie of the nuclear disaster's causes and main preliminary lessons. Also its political effects in Europe.

It’s a continuing slow motion disaster. Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency privately talk of it continuing for years whilst other scientists say decades.

It’s still uncertain if Japan will succeed in keeping the reactor fuel cool to stop it from melting through the bottoms of the reactor buildings into the soil below.  The 10 m thick concrete bases are an insurance against this. But were it to occur, we would be deep in uncharted territory.

The article notes that the reactor malfunctions, fuel meltdowns and explosions were due not only to the tsunami, but despite official denials, also to the earthquake.

A major headache now is the structural instability of the wrecked reactor buildings which may collapse at any time due to the massive weight of the storage ponds, unwisely situated on top of the reactors.

Interestingly, Dr Fairlie argues Fukushima is not as serious a disaster as Chernobyl.

Political impact

Germany - anti-nuclear demo 26 March 2011
(Organised within a fortnight, if the date is correct!)
Different European countries have responded in opposite ways. In the UK, the coalition government, most political parties and many parts of the media appear to be ignorant of the continuing events at Fukushima.  Or perhaps in denial about them. Certainly most of the UK press and the BBC are heavily pro-nuclear in their outlooks. UK civil servants colluded with the nuclear industry in downplaying the impact of Fukushima on public support for nuclear power.

The result is that the UK remains strongly pro-nuclear. Dr Fairlie illustrates this by citing the nuclear vote in the Commons on July 18, 2011. Only 14 out of 650 UK MPs voted against the government’s Nuclear Policy Statements. In contrast, two weeks earlier, on June 30, the German Parliament voted by 513 to 79 to phase out all nuclear power by 2022.

In Germany, several 250,000-strong demonstrations took place after Fukushima. In addition to the phase out policy, stiff anti-nuclear windfall taxes have been imposed.

And Japan itself

The impact on Japan is truly numbing.  The Japanese people are struggling with the combined consequences of the earthquake, the tsunami and of the Fukushima disaster. Over 100,000 have had to be evacuated from their homes, possibly for decades, whilst an estimated 20,000 were killed by the earthquake and tsunami themselves.

Is the IAEA equipped to monitor nuclear safety?

The competence of the International Atomic Energy Agency isn't touched on in the article, and but I'll mention it here, as it’s a hot topic. The IAEA, it turns out, is an institution whose main purpose and interest is to advocate civil use of nuclear power. The IAEA statute includes: "to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world". As such, it’s often argued that the IAEA is permeated by a fundamental conflict of interest preventing it operating as a regulatory agency in matters of nuclear safety. 

Another topic not covered is the political impact of Fukushima in the USA. Europe is dealt with, but not elsewhere.

For my previous thoughts on the nuclear question, with plenty of links, type "nuclear" into this blog's search box.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Man, the feeblest thing in nature

First edition of Pascal's Pensées 1670
The thoughts of Mr. Pascal on religion and some other subjects
found amongst his papers after his death
       Here is Pensée no 347 ...

       Man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to arm itself in order to crush him: one vapour, one drop of water will suffice to kill him.  But when the universe crushes him, man is still nobler than his slayer, because man knows that he is dying, and understands the advantage the universe has over him.  The universe knows none of this.

      All our dignity consists, then, in thought.  Thought alone is what elevates us, and not space and time, which we can never fill.  Let us labour, then, to think well;  this is the principle of morality.

           ... and here it is in French ...

      L'homme n'est qu'un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c'est un roseau pensant.  Il ne faut pas que l'univers entier s'arme pour l'écraser; une vapeur, une goutte d'eau suffit pour le tuer.  Mais quand l'univers l'écraserait, l'homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, puisqu'il sait qu'il meurt et l'avantage que l'univers a sur lui.  L'univers n'en sait rien.

      Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée.  C'est de là qu'il nous faut relever et non de l'espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir.  Travaillons donc à bien penser voilà le principe de la morale.

Blaise Pascal 1623-1662
There are roughly a thousand of these thoughts. About 300 years ago the original scraps of paper were glued helter-skelter (upside-down, sideways, at all angles) into a large album that is now protected as one of the most precious cultural treasures of France in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris.  I've searched in vain for an image of this album to put up here. The mathematician George F Simmons tells how he had the privilege of spending a couple of hours examining the album, hunting for familiar passages, and occasionally finding them. Pascal is to France what Plato is to Greece, Dante to Italy, Cervantes to Spain, and Shakespeare to England, he says.*

Pascal’s purpose was to write a monumental and irresistible defence of the Christian religion against the unbelievers, but he died aged 39 in 1662 before he could complete the work.   In general the theme of the Pensées is the grandeur and misery of man.

“Pascal's Wager” is a subject for another day.  In essence it’s the argument that were you to take a bet on God’s existence, it is advisable to bet for rather than against, as the consequences of being wrong on the one side are mild, and on the other catastrophic. Expressed thus it sounds like a satire perpetrated by an atheist. But Pascal was devout, so there's actually more to it than that.

* Calculus Gems 2007, p 123. Simmons actually quotes Pascal’s biographer Ernest Mortimer (1959) quoting a Professor Chevalier.