Wednesday Night #1516

With the guidance of John Jonas who recommends Nukes: Improve them, but don’t even think of abandoning them , Douglas Lightfoot, Catherine Gillbert bearing papers and charts , and Stephen Kinsman, our resident risk manager, discussion focused almost entirely on the real and imagined effects of the nuclear disaster in Japan. See for photos and more.

Energy, nuclear energy, radiation and insatiable demand
The risk of death and disease arising from the London smog or to the coal miners when our homes were heated with coal was accepted without equivocation. We embrace without hesitation, radiological examinations and therapies or even  remain oblivious to the fact that in the early days of radiology, Radiologists risked losing their fingers after prolonged exposure to the radiation created by the early X-Ray machines and the lack of protection for those who used them. The possible adverse effects arising from X-raying the feet (and probably coincidentally many organs) of children in purchasing new shoes, have never really been calculated. As protective measures were introduced, later generations gained confidence in diagnostic (and therapeutic) radiation technology and radioactive implants.
Probably for millennia, we have depended on burning the bones of our ancient ancestors for heat and other energy needs. We have witnessed such phenomena as global warming and the diminishing easy availability of carbon-based energy sources. Québec’s hydroelectric capabilities have served us well but are not infinite in their capacity to serve a growing population with growing needs. The problem with wind power is that it requires a crutch to take over when the wind is calm.
Unfortunately, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the current crisis in Japan are powerful disincentives to live within even long distances from nuclear power plants. The radioactivity escaping from nuclear reactors is absorbed by humans through the crops that it has affected. Radioactive strontium is absorbed by the bones, radioactive iodine by the thyroid. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course, brought into focus the deadly effects of radiation, yet the survivors of those disasters who were outside the epicentre are said to not have been more adversely affected today than humans who had not directly faced the terror of those bombings.
Airline pilots spend almost their entire time subject to radiation yet do not appear to have been adversely affected by their choice of career.
In today’s reactors, fuel rods are contained in a pressure tube, spent fuel is stored in a large pool of water and the reactor itself is housed in a containment building designed to resist a direct collision with a large aircraft with walls four to five feet thick. A third passive safety device in the form of a huge water tank is placed above the reactor designed to automatically release a sufficient quantity of water to cool the reactor in the event of a problem.
Japan’s current tragedy is said to have resulted not from the horrific earthquake, but by the subsequent tsunami. At Three Mile Island, there was a partial meltdown, but damage was mostly contained within the building. Although most of the core melted, an almost negligible amount of radiation escaped the containment. In Canada, there has been no serious nuclear accident. Chernobyl was a disaster because there was no containment, nor was there a shutdown system. There was a total of fifty fatalities, including thirty deaths and twenty fire fatalities but additional cancer deaths over the years.
The incredible discipline in Japanese society was undoubtedly a large factor in controlling the fatalities. Unlike the western world, everyone in Japan had frequently participated in drills, knew what to do and where to go, minimizing fatalities. During World War II, children were instructed to lie under their desks in the event of attack, but no further instructions beyond that.
Canada’s population has more than trebled in the past sixty years. The thirst for energy has grown exponentially and although blessed with hydro-electric energy, our rivers will ultimately peak in their capacity to deliver energy and that of fossil fuel is said to have already done so. Electricity appears to be the only viable alternative to fossil fuel as an energy source and as our traditional source of electricity tops out, the only viable choice is nuclear energy, a choice proven reasonably safe in Europe. The alternative, namely the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels does not appear to be acceptable and even with the rising cost of fuels, it is unlikely that trucks and automobiles are likely to become less popular as means of transportation.

A federal election about to happen?
It would appear that Canada is about to face another election, likely to lead to a Conservative majority government. The issue is neither budget nor economics. The budget could very easily have been crafted as a Liberal budget. The Prime Minister appears to believe, with reason, that he can easily gain the majority that has eluded him in the past two elections and for the Liberal leader it is a now-or-never roll of the dice.

The (retail) price of petroleum
Although some blame those speculating on petroleum futures, they do not appear to be at all responsible for the illogical wide day-to-day wide swings in the retail gasoline market, with no apparent differences in price from one gas station to the next and Tuesday being the day when prices can be expected to be less high then other days of the week, accurately instantly mirroring the price of crude petroleum. Some Wednesday Nighters express the belief that the refining market is the cause of this phenomenon.

Market prediction
The resident Market Maven recalling his accurate prediction of a late February and early March correction, has revealed his crystal ball conviction that the market will be significantly higher than it is now, by the end of April and beginning of May.


The Prologue

As the world continues to monitor the news from Japan and Libya, the two inter-related issues of environment and energy – water and nuclear power -are lead items for our agenda, although there are those who will immediately remind us that the fate of our nation is to be (maybe) determined by the Budget and/or the NDP. But probably not before Friday. However, comments on the BUDGET will be welcomed – you have 24+ hours to think up something clever.
March 22 is World Water Day, with the theme of Water for cities.  Even though Canada is blessed with the world’s largest supply of fresh water, there are problems, as Tom Axworthy points out. Few of us knew that “Water as a security issue” (as urbanization, population growth and other forces place increasing strain on natural resources) tops the agenda this year for a council of 37 former heads of state and government (of whose existence we were, all or most, no doubt equally ignorant) convening in Québec in late May, with a preliminary meeting of international experts this week on the prospect of future water conflicts. The InterAction Council (IAC), which is co-chaired by former PM Jean Chrétien, makes recommendations related to long-term issues facing humankind. Mr. Chrétien is also chairing a meeting of the committee of experts this week. It will be instructive to observe what recommendations emerge from the latter meeting and what attention Canadians pay.
The dramatic events in Japan have, not surprisingly prompted hasty and might we suggest somewhat hysterical, re-examination of national nuclear energy policies (Germany, Britain) although France is taking another tack despite inherent problems with climate change Japan tragedy: time for Europe to scrap nuclear power?. Canada is hastening to do the same (Nuclear commission orders Canadian reactors to review safety plans: In the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has ordered all reactor operators to revisit their safety plans and report on potential improvements to be made by April’s end. National Post while in our backyard a Coalition fights Quebec’s nuclear plant . While concern for the safety of operation of nuclear facilities is and should be ever-present, we find that there is much media frenzy coalesced around faulty, if not dis-information. Therefore, we look forward to having Douglas Lightfoot, John Jonas and Catherine Gillbert with us to lead the discussion, armed with facts. Speaking of which, see Cleo’s piece Why We Build Nuclear Power Stations in Earthquake Zones
Libya continues to compete with Japan for the headlines (there is also a very interesting Stratfor analysis regarding the connection between the two), especially now that people are asking what the strategy of the coalition is. We are reminded of the famous remark by Bill Buckley when he was asked what he would do if he won the mayoralty race in New York: “Demand a recount”. Is the Arab League demanding a recount now that the no-fly zone is established? Could it be that some of the not-so-worthies whose democratic credentials are no better than Colonel Gadhafi’s are wondering who might be next? Meanwhile, pundits and voters are asking why Libya and not Bahrain, Yemen or Saudi Arabia? (Kelly McParland has a trenchant column on the Saudis prove that socialism works just fine) To further muddy the waters, there’s the problem of overall leadership of the no-fly effort Western allies participating in the air assault against targets in Libya are struggling to identify what entity will ultimately command the operation, which is currently unfolding under U.S. leadership. Britain and Italy want NATO to assume command, a move France is resisting. NATO heavyweights Germany and Turkey also have expressed opposition to NATO command.” Bloomberg
And what of the impact on the world economy of these simultaneous events and others below the fold? One friend informs us that he has been “buying Japan like mad” ever since the Nikkei resumed trading after the earthquake/tsunami. What of our other canny investors? What do they recommend?
Isn’t it encouraging that Haiti’s presidential run-off is an after-thought this week because all proceeded smoothly Observers praise Haiti vote, urge transparent count It seems that neither Baby Doc’s nor Aristide’s return caused the expected problems.

A few congratulatory notes before closing (we do TRY to end on an up-beat note).
To Bert Revenaz, who writes: Ecometrica and Our Impacts are finalists in the Green IT Awards 2011, now we need votes. (So will the Liberal Party, but it’s not the same contest)
You can vote for Ecometrica and Our Impacts under the: “Environmental Accounting Product of the Year” category. Please note that Bert advises that you have to do it from a valid work e-mail address. Votes from, yahoomail, hotmail etc. …. won’t count.
To An Ngo who was among the McGill students and graduates awarded the Scarlet Key for leadership exhibited through service to the McGill community. An says “I am beyond words at my nomination, which was a great surprise orchestrated by my former colleagues in the PGSS, primarily for the Science & Policy Exchange.” ( (english) and (français)
To Steven Lightfoot who has laboured long and hard on the Policy Committee of the Westmount Liberal Riding Association. Thanks to his patient and persistent advocacy, “his” policy resolutions pertaining to Energy and the Environment were adopted as Priority resolutions for the Quebec wing of the Federal Liberal Party at the University of Sherbrooke on Saturday, March 12. Just shows what a dedicated volunteer with determination can accomplish!

One Comment on "Wednesday Night #1516"

  1. Gerald Ratzer March 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm ·

    What happened in Japan has been horrible to see and will hit the nuclear industry world-wide in a negative way.
    Murphy’s Law says “If something can go wrong – it will go wrong”.
    Black Swans and fat tails address the scenarios which have very low probability, but yet will occur.

    The disaster in Japan highlights these effects and the difference between three separate events or three sequential events that are interrelated.
    1. Earthquakes in Japan are expected and occur regularly. Typically they are at a low level, and they are designing new buildings to cope with these smaller tremors. Also the population is trained to take immediate action to safe guard themselves.
    However, large 8.9 scale earthquakes do happen and can be expected, even if they are rare.
    2. Japan (especially the east coast) in on the “Ring of Fire” and tsunamis are expected. Most will not be in the 15 to 20 metre range, but ones of this size have occurred along the Pacific Rim in the last few years.
    3. While there are economies of scale in building nuclear reactions close to each other – there are also problems from the interaction between reactors in a disaster setting. Many of the fail-safe systems needed electrical power to work and these were knocked out because of a lack of power.

    This was a triple whammy, where three disasters were compounded (1 AND 2 AND 3). If any of the three occurred separately (1 OR 2 OR 3) then the problems would have been manageable.

    Murphy’s Law show that rare events, when compounded, can cause Black Swans to happen, with terrible effect.
    With 20/20 hindsight – locating nuclear plants on the west coast of Japan and designing the fail-safe systems to rely only on gravity (which works 24/7/365) – then much of this disaster would have been avoided.

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