Notes from the US of A

I’ve been travelling internationally for the last few weeks. It’s been a productive time – I’ve drafted a complete paper intended for The Breakthrough Journal (more on this in a later post), increased and enhanced my network of professional connections and friendships, got some robust strategic planning done on how to get ‘big things’ happening in energy and ecology, and generally had a fun time!

First, I was in St Petersburg, Russia, for the awards ceremony of the Global Energy Prize. (Whilst there I saw a performance of Swan Lake at the Alexandrinksy Theatre).

Then I visited Chicago for a few days at the annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society, where we had a full-day workshop on the Integral Fast Reactor, including insights from some of the key engineers (Charles Till, Yoon Chang, Len Koch, Mike Lineberry, John Sackett), followed by some environmental and international perspectives from Joe Shuster, Tom Blees, Mark Lynas and me.

Over the last few days I was in Sausilito for the 2012 Breakthrough Dialogue (here is a link to the 2011 meeting) on dealing with ‘wicked problems’ (energy and biodiversity related) — apart from a great meeting, I got to walk around the beautiful surrounding landscapes of pine (and eucalypt!), and across the Golden Gate Bridge before the typical San Francisco fog started to roll in.

Oh, I also stayed with Tom Blees for a day in Sacramento, along with Mark Lynas – whilst there, we got some education in energy policy from Hobo the Hedgehog (courtesy of Dave Blees):

Mark Lynas, Tom Blees and Barry Brook getting lectured to on ‘energy mixes’

Now, I’m in downtown San Francisco with Ben Heard, preparing to head home tonight. (By the way, check out John Morgan’s report on Ben’s recent nuclear debate in Sydney).

Some other things of general interest, before I sign off:

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Golf balls and elephants – energy density in 9 seconds

I’m currently developing a short (2 minute, 30 second) animated video on nuclear power and climate change, with help from friend Ben Heard and the skills of Ron Furner and his team at Fury Films. Near the end of the vid, we talk about the vast amount of energy embodied in so-called ‘nuclear waste’ (or indeed, depleted uranium, or thorium). Here is a 9-second teaser (this is a draft, the final version looks better):



So, the premise here is that 1 golf ball of uranium equates to a lifetime of energy for a person in a high-energy-use society like Australia or the US, and that if this same energy was supplied instead by fossil fuels, it would be the equivalent to about 800 elephants worth of coal (or thereabouts).

Here is how I came up with the comparison.

First to the golf ball of uranium (Nuclear waste is mostly uranium-238 and various minor actinides; we also have large stockpiles of depleted uranium that is left over from enrichment. Further, a lump of thorium-232, if used in an appropriate reactor that can breed uranium-233 [such as a molten salt isobreeder], would also have essentially the same energy equivalence. It’s a matter of picking your preferred heavy metal).

Density of uranium = 19.1 g/cc and Volume of a golf ball = 40.7 cc

So, the mass of a golf-ball-sized lump of uranium = 19.1 x 40.7… let’s say 780 grams.

Okay, what is its energy content?

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Josef Oehmen and Fukushima – Would I have believed myself?

On the 13th of March, I posted an article called “Fukushima Nuclear Accident – A simple and accurate explanation“. This was early on in the Fukushima crisis when people were desperately hungry for understandable information, and yet there were scarce few good explanations available. The post had been written by Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, in Boston. I’d stumbled across it when it had just been published on Jason Morgan’s new blog, and thought it was worth re-broadcasting, so I contacted Jason and got his and Josef’s permission to reprint.

The rest is history… Via my and Jason’s contacts and through Twitter and the blogs, it soon ‘went viral‘ , and later the Energy Collective reposted my version (with permission) and this amplified its audience even further. A group from MIT then took over management of the information, and did a few further updates, which I also mirrored. To me, it was an example of the internet at its best — exponential networking of key information.

However, the story doesn’t end there. It also created a huge amount of indignation, including a flood of vitriolic ad hominem comments on this blog that, if I’d let through the moderation queue, would have made your gentle eyes water! As the situation at Fukushima worsened, the MIT NSE group provided updates that improved upon the original information a little, and also toned down some of the stronger conclusions that had proven overly optimistic (I was also guilty of not fully appreciating the seriousness of the situation caused by the 14 m tsunami at Daiichi Plant). This updating of the information was, apparently, was the most heinous of crimes, and Josef himself was cast as the evil (and grossly unqualified) mastermind at the heart of an international conspiracy! (I was, alas, but a mere pawn in artful machinations…). The story was even taken up by New Scientist, although they got some of the detail (e.g., sequence of events) wrong.

So, what does the fiendish genius — with whom I’m since become firm internet buddies — have to say on this matter? Should people have listened to him, or should his article have been rightly consigned to ghastly the abyss of HTTP 404 errors? You decide, when you read this guest post…

Oh, and if you’d like to participate in a little 5 minute survey as part of the follow-up research that Josef is doing on this little drama, click here…

Would I have believed myself? On evaluating the quality of reports on topics that one does not know a whole lot about

Guest Post by Josef Oehmen. Josef is a research scientist in mechanical engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On Sunday, March 13, my cousin in Japan posted an email I had written to him on his blog in the early morning at 3am EST. The email explained the context of nuclear physics and engineering, as well as discussed the events at the Daiichi-1 reactor until that point. It also featured my very strong opinion that they are safe. By lunchtime, it was the second most twittered site on the internet (you can read the whole story at At the end of the day, it had been translated into more than 9 languages (often multiple times), and after 48 hours had been read by several million people. Two weeks into my unwanted and luckily rapidly cooling off Web 2.0 stardom, I have begun working through the trauma and reflecting. Thanks for sharing, you might think. But one question in particular came up that also has some general relevance:

Would I have believed myself if I came across that blog and had no prior knowledge of nuclear physics and engineering? Or asked another way: How do you judge the quality of TV, radio, print and internet news reporting on topics that you are only superficially familiar with?

Read the answer below. And like everything I write, it is rather lengthy!

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Another hockey stick fabrication!

All is not as it seems with the world’s most famous hockey stick graph, a new study, to be published in the journal Power and Milieu, has revealed.

For decades, school students and the general public have been taught that world human population size has exploded into exponential growth over the last few centuries (see left), with ‘demographic models’ being used to predict that this trend will be ongoing for at least the next 50 years.

Yet many unrecognised academics and independent intellectuals have quietly harboured a suspicion that this reconstruction — based on dubious data at best — was nothing more than a front for socialists and deep greens, who wished to foist on society the increasingly discredited hypothesis that human population size somehow cannot continue to grow indefinitely. Yet to date they have remained largely hidden from public view, fearful that by ‘coming out’ they risk ridicule and loss of lucrative grants.

That is all about to change, according to the new study’s authors, Prof Sherman Quackentire and Dr Rolf McDipstick, of the University of Pangaea. “It’s just this graph, you know…” say Prof Quackentire. Dr McDipstick elaborates: “Xerxes managed to muster an army of a million men at Plataea — on one tiny field of battle! Now I ask you, how is that possible if world population size at the time was mere 50 million? It just didn’t make any sense to us.”

The paper, entitled “World population size revisited: a fluctuating doodle“, is rich with such historical counter-evidence, which builds a powerful scientific and historical case to refute the population hockey stick. Other examples include pictorial evidence from scenes of naked Egyptian dancing girls on ancient tomb walls,  counts of barley and malt husks from a cracked Mesopotamian grindstone, and an isotopic analysis on a small pile of coprolites thought to be derived from a Roman canine which lived along Hadrian’s Wall. After painstakingly piecing together these and many other indirect population proxies, Quackentire and McDipstick came up with the figure illustrated below.


In their controversial reconstruction, the 20th century upswing in human population density (circled in red) is revealed to be nothing more than a random blip in a noisy time series. It looks even less impressive when plotted on a logarithmic scale (right panel).

The senior author explains: “Human population size changes all the time. I mean, it’s just arrogant of us to imagine that we have anything to do with this. Natural events like wars, famine, volcanic eruptions, alien invasions — they’ve all played their part in influencing population size in the past, and they’ll continue to do so long after we’re all gone. The ‘growthists’ who now run our political agenda just refuse to acknowledge this, yet every historian I’ve ever talked to realises this simple fact. Do they imagine we are stupid or something?“.

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Cartoon guide to global warming denial II

There are two reasons to chuckle at the current situation with global warming. First, it’s because if you don’t have laugh at how ridiculous the national (Australian) and international ‘responses’ to this crisis are, you’d be forced to cry. Second, the denier are, well… laughable. Enjoy batch II (you can see batch I here).


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