Radiation, eek!

One of the big headlines of past week was that "the tap water in Tokyo is not safe for children".

Well, not for Japanese children, that is. In one of the water plants in Tokyo, the radioactivity was 210 Bq/l. Is this a lot? In Japan, it is, so much that there is a national scare, because the limit of 200 Bq/l is exceeded.

But in Finland the safe limit for municipal water plants is 300 Bq/l, and for private water sources it is 1000 Bq/l. In reality, drilled wells in souther Finland typically exceed this by many times, with the natural radiation of groundwater radon in Western Uusimaa region being on the average between 1000 and 10 000 Bq/l. This is because of the radioactivity in the Finnish rock ground.

So, once again, you might be scared in Japan but running away to be somewhere else is not necessarily a whole lot safer, because that Evil Radiation is everywhere, so easily measurable.

Now, there really could be some serious problems with radiation in Japan. But how do we know? Because our major newspapers are like boys who cry wolf, they're not very believable. I suppose something worse than this tapwater scare will come out, but it's still going to be dwarfed by the natural disaster of earthquake and tsunami, as well as the collapse of the hydroelectric dam in the neighbourhood - of which we're not hearing anything, because no one is interested, because it is not nuclear.

On the other side of the Sea of Japan there is some more serious trouble.

Why do journalists want to scare us?

A few thoughts regarding the scale of destruction caused by natural disaster in Japan, and the hews headlines which are almost exclusively about the nuclear reactor leakages.

There is a perception that you don't need to make news about the impact of the tsunami in Japan, because "nothing can be done about a tsunami".

That is not true. A lot can be done about a tsunami. And in fact, a lot was done in Japan. Warning systems, evacuation plans, protective structures. That's why the number of dead will be around 30,000 and not 300,000 or more. When Indonesia and Thailand were hit by a tsunami a few years back, a lot more people were killed because they had not prepared as well.

Likewise with nuclear power. The plants can be improved. In fact, besides Fukushima, several other nuclear plants on the same coast were hit by this huge tsunami - and there is no crisis. Some of them needed to resort to emergency procedures, but those were successful. We should learn about that.

What actually scares me about the Fukushima incident is people like Frigyes Reisch, head of Swedish nuclear safety, says he thinks "in Sweden it would be handled more effectively". That sounds actually scary and overconfident. You don't make nuclear plants safer by pretending that you are more effective and better than the Japanese. That's a recipe for disaster. The way to avoid trouble is that you plan ahead for all kinds of risks and make contingency plans, back-up systems, better design. You don't jsut assume that you are more efficient than the Japanese.

If you are asking why there are problems in Swedish reactors, I think the biggest reason is the rather foolish referendum 30 years ago where there was a decision to shut down the plants in Sweden. Which was unrealistic, couldn't be done, and wasn't done, because the nation needs electricity. Instead, the utilization of the plants has increased, without much investment.

Why? If you are going to shut down the plants, the owner cannot invest in further development and renewals. And these are the things that would introduce new safety features, better reactor designs, safer plants. So Sweden voted to increase nuclear power but not develop it to be safer.

Otherwise, I'm quite shocked by the way media in the Nordics are exploiting the Japanese disaster politically to oppose nuclear power. There is a huge humanitarian disaster there. Even though the Japanese did prepare well, there was still huge damage and a lot of loss of life due to tsunami. The crisis in Fukushima plant is a very minor issue compared to the direct impact of the tsunami itself, even despite the extensive preparations and evacuations. The life has been changed for millions. But all that has gone from headlines, because fearmongering about nuclear plants sells better.

Some basic information:
http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/plecture/bmonreal11/ (from March 16)


A mine in fire

While the Japanese still struggle a bit at the Fukushima nuclear plant to limit any damage, the world is a the brink of hysteria. Googling around, I ran into an example of the downside of the practical alternative to nuclear power:


This mine fire has been burning since 1962, i.e. it will be 50 years old next year. The borough of Centralia is now a ghost town, with just seven people living there who still refuse to leave despite orders to evacuate.

Imagine the uproar we'd have if a uranium mine or depot would have a fire that would last 50 years and force the evacuation of an entire town... No one I've spoken to had ever heard of Centralia, though everyone has heard of Chernobyl.

The story is interesting: people didn't quite know that the earth under their feet was burning. Until a gas station owner noticed that the fuel in his underground tanks was very, very warm indeed: 78  °C.


An unrelated observation: I have not noticed anywhere any reports that there would be looting, rioting or other types of crime waves in the areas that tsunami destroyed in Japan. I suppose that could be called civilization.


How to get rid of a dictator

Last week's news is that Muammar Gaddafi is facing investigation for crimes against humanity. Is this really wise?

I mean, in all honesty, Gaddafi of today is not much different from Gaddafi of one month ago, and I don't think it is a surprise to anyone that when his power is challenged, a dictator's reaction is thoroughly violent. How come his government was until so very recently deemed fit to judge others as a member of the UN Human Rights Council? To get commendable peer reviews from Venezuela, Zimbabwe and North Korea?

Just a few weeks ago, the rest of the world was willing enough to play along with Gaddafi, and no one should pretend that his attitude towards humanity today has somehow suddenly changed. We all knew all the time who and what he is. So what do we reach by trying to drag him to a court now, and not then?

What actually is the impact of trying to get Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court? I think the only thing that can be achieved is that Gaddafi has to cling to power in fear of his life and liberty. Wouldn't it be much better if he was able to collect a moderate proportion of his savings - yes, taken from his people and nation - and retire quietly to some place safe, like Nicaragua or North Korea? Let him have a nice villa, 24h security, the Ukrainian nurse, and a few million $US on his bank accounts. No need for more, but let him have enough to live comfortably. Forget the stupid civil war, just don't have it at all. The net impact is that whatever Gaddafi gets to keep is probably less than what is destroyed during one day of civil war. Let him have it, and be rid of him.

You could of course ask, what about justice? Isn't it valuable that dictators are brought to justice?

Well, the ICC does not seem to be able to deliver it. It suffers from the same problems as the tribunal for Yugoslavian wars, where Slobodan Milosevic was allowed to play around for months and years, and in the end, he's still as much a hero for some and as much a villain for others, and not the tragically condemned and convicted man he was supposed to be. There's no end to the various conspiracy theories.

Let's just all admit that Gaddafi has been playing us for 40 years; if he agrees to retire quietly, let's encourage him to do so, forget about the hassle, and try to help building a new, better Libya. Which I hope, possibly in vain,  is not going to be a crazy theocracy.

Echoes of Chernobyl

Today's news claim that "a serious nuclear disaster threatens the Earth", things look real bad.

I'll make another threat to the Earth: behave, or I'll kick you! Who gave the permission to move Japan 2.4 meters to a wrong place? Now people will crash to traffic signs if they trust their satnavs.

But other than that, I fail to see what's the big deal. Sure, not having any radioactive leakage would be preferable, but the damage caused by leaks at the Fukushima plant are a fairly minimal aspect when compared to the immense destruction caused by the tsunami itself - even if the damage escalates from today, which is not that sure.

If anything, I think this shows how safe nuclear power is. For me, the question was resolved at Chernobyl. Even if you have a large nuclear site, designed for production of nuclear weapon material as a by-product of energy, with a completely reckless and incompetent leadership screwing things as bad as is humanly possible (here I'm not talking about many of the brave firefighters and soldiers etc who worked there, just the leadership), the damage was less than spectacular. Sure, there was a sizable radioactive leak which is easily measurable far away, including where I live - radioactivity is always easily measurable. Areas around the town were deemed uninhabitable - although at the same time, this created a rather interesting nature reserve.

But the damage is minimal when compared to the impact of mining and burning coal (excluding any impact of CO2 emissions, just considering the mining accidents and the particles and radioactivity emitted from burning), or the impact of collecting wood and burning it, or just about any alternative.