What can we learn from Kerala?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Kerala is a state on the South Western coast of India; about a third the size of Tasmania or just slightly bigger than Hawaii. It’s been on my radar ever since it featured in an inspirational segment of David Attenborough’s 2009 “How many people can live on planet earth” documentary (35:16).

With 33 million people in an area half the size of Tasmania, you can imagine it’s rather crowded. Some official methods of forest counting nevertheless claim that 44 percent of Kerala is still covered in forest of some kind or another, but scientific studies put the figure much lower at about 21 percent of the country having forests with a crown density higher than 40 percent and another 5 percent with a crown density between 10 and 40 percent. The statistical discrepancy brings to mind Australia’s little Kyoto trick of defining a forest as an area with trees over 2 metres in height and a crown cover of 20 percent or more.

Kerala is experiencing many developing country problems; for example, it is heavily dependent on a couple of million of its population working in the Gulf states and sending back cash. This helps it to import food with its area dedicated to rice halving in recent times as cash crops like rubber and coconut take over. Kerala’s chicken consumption is also increasing and now triple the Indian average. While it’s still just 15 grams a day, chickens are net food consumers, not producers. The bottom line is that Kerala’s remaning forests are under threat from all manner of activities, both legal and illegal.

But the inspirational part is that Kerala has been educating its girls and reaping the rewards; families are now small and the population is stable. Kerala’s life expectancy at birth is 74; the highest of any state in India. It also has the highest literacy rate of 93 percent. Kerala’s Human Development Index of 0.854 is similar to that of Australia in 1980. This is a spectacular achievement considering that Kerala’s installed electrical capacity is about 2700 MW plus another 266 MW from the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the border in Tamil Nadu. So if it’s all running, she can generate about the same power as the South Australian peak demand, which services just 1.6 million people. In 2001, 77 percent of households cooked with wood, LPG was next with 18 percent. Down at the bottom is electricity at just 0.1 percent along with an assortment of kerosene, coal, biogas, crop residues and cow dung. Cooking smoke is a potent killer of young children in India. In 2010, Kerala had the lowest mortality rate for children under 5, but that still meant 16 deaths per 1000 births. More electricity would help, but there still needs to be a cultural shift. Rice is a staple in Kerala and the preferred method of preparation is parboiling, a fascinating ancient process which improves the nutrient profile but lengthens the cooking process. More cooking means more energy and wood fires have a cultural significance that will be tough to shift. I haven’t worked out where the firewood comes from but Kerala uses about 8 million tonnes of it for rice cooking alone. This is more than all the wood and paper products Australia produces from its 2 million hectares of plantations.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in neigbouring Tamil Nadu state, with first unit (1,000 MW) commissioned in the year 2013. With initial capacity of 2,000 MW, this station will be expanded to 6,800 MW capacity.

Kerala’s been on the radar of the World Health Organisation for over half a century ago and the reasons have nothing to do with population or rice or wood cooking fires or dodgy forest data. Kerala has a very high rate of background radiation due to sands containing thorium. The level ranges from about 70 percent above the global average to about 30 times the global average. For thousands of years, some of the population of Kerala have been living bathed in radiation at more than triple the level which will get you compulsorily thrown out of your home (evacuation) in Japan. The Japanese have set the maximum annual radiation level at 20 milli Sieverts per year around Fukushima while some parts of Kerala have had a level of 70 milliSieverts per year … for ever.

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@bionerd23 rescuing rationality from the suits

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Bionerd23She looks a little like Noomi Rapace playing the legendary Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not quite so tough, but not someone to mess with. Still, it takes more than a punk hair cut to make a real toughie. In one of her latest YouTube clips, she’s in a state of panic in the back of a minivan whimpering in fear and busily checking the doors and winding up windows. “Oh sh.t, it’s coming, I don’t want to die, it’s coming … f..k!” the voice quivers and the fear is palpable. “this sh.t is dangerous, he’s going to kill you.”

She’s in one of the scariest places on the planet. A place most people wouldn’t send their worst enemy to. But moments before she’s been wandering around like a kid in a candy store with an infectious sense of wonder, happiness and excitement.

The young woman is @bionerd23, a German geek YouTube flicking science student, and she’s at Chernobyl wandering around in the debris from the 1986 steam explosion which blew the top off one of the nuclear reactors and changed the course of history. Without it, more countries would have followed France and rolled out nuclear power and been generating electricity for 70 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour instead of the 850g that is typical in a non-nuclear country like Australia.

@bionerd23 has made a series of youtube clips in Chernobyl. Not your usual “me in front of the fountain” shots, but “Here’s me eating apples off abandoned trees 4km from the Chernobyl reactor” and “Here’s me finding a piece of the graphite core moderator spat out when the reactor exploded in 1986 … wow … look at my Geiger counter maxing out!.

So what’s frightening this radiation warrior?

A fox. This isn’t a red-riding-hood wolf, this is a fox. If you aren’t small and feathery or furry, then a fox is a cute creature with a big bushy tale and come hither eyes. “Wouldn’t you just love to pat me!”.

The facts are that @bionerd23 is behaving pretty bloody rationally because she’s far more brain than brawn … despite the haircut. Foxes carry rabies, Ukraine is a rabies hot spot and healthy foxes don’t normally approach in the middle of the day. If you aren’t vaccinated against rabies and you are bitten and infected, then you will die unless you can quickly get proper treatment … a post-bite vaccination plus some high tech supplemental treatment. Rabies kills about 50,000 people a year globally, which is more every year than the Chernobyl accident has killed in close to 3 decades. At a rough estimate, rabies has killed about 1.4 million more people over the period, but hasn’t changed the course of history.

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What the Melbourne Cup can teach us about journalists… and real emissions cuts

MelbCupGuest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“. Definitely worth a read…

Last week, The Age published a piece by its Economics Editor, Peter Martin, called Power down: What the Melbourne Cup can teach us about fighting climate change. It began with a pretty interesting observation about changes in electricity usage that happen as people down tools or computers or something and watch the Melbourne Cup. It wasn’t that long ago that I took the constancy of the electrical output at wall sockets for granted. Martin echos my own fascination at finding out a little of the black art, otherwise known as power engineering, that makes it happen. It’s not magic, people have to do stuff … sometimes on a minute by minute basis.

Martin turns this into an energy efficiency rant by somehow imagining that we consumers can, by collective action, conquer climate change in the same way that US consumers crushed the oil crisis in the 1970s by switching to 4-cylinder cars and insulating their houses. What? Is that what really happened or did Martin just make it up or repeat something he heard in the pub from somebody who heard it from a mate who knows Amory Lovins?

Let’s check. We can go to the International Energy Agency website and with a little hunting find a chart of US Oil use since 1972. Here it is.

USA-oil-useJust looking at it is instructive. The standout decline is down the bottom. Fuel oil. None of the others look to contribute much on their own. Fuel oil’s use peaked around 1978 and then crashed. Print the image and measure. It’s down by almost 11 millimeters over the following decade on my printout … close on 100 million tonnes.

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An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

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Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Regular BNC commenter and my friend Geoff Russell (@csiroperfidy) has published a new book. It’s called “Greenjacked!: The derailing of environmental action on climate change“. The blurb:

Today’s anti-nuclear movement began as the anti-atomic weapons movement in the late 1950s. At this time, DNA repair mechanisms were unknown and there was only one known cause of cancer … radiation. Then, during the next half century, DNA repair mechanisms of immense power were discovered along with many more causes of cancer. We now know radiation is a minor player compared to cigarettes, alcohol, red meat, processed meat and obesity; to name a few. We now know why Japanese people moving permanently from Tokyo to either Paris, New York or Sydney would experience a much bigger rise in cancer risk than if they moved into the area currently evacuated around the Fukushima reactors.

Nevertheless, despite growing and increasingly sophisticated knowledge about cancer causes, the anti-nuclear movement kept nuclear power hamstrung using obsolete notions of the risks posed to DNA by radiation. This paved the way for our fossil fuelled world and kept our cleanest most potent energy source off the table as a response to climate change. GreenJacked explains, in lay language, the progress in our knowledge about cancer and shows that nuclear power is our best hope in the battle against a deteriorating climate and why we have to overturn long held but obsolete fears.

Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Doherty has endorsed GreenJacked, along with climate scientists and activists. If you are an anti-nuclear environmentalist concerned about our planet, then you need to open your mind, prepare to be amazed and read this book.

You can buy it as a Kindle book (which is readable on Kindle devices, iPads, PCs, Android readers, etc. all with free software, so no excuses) and it less then the cost of a couple of cups of coffee. Get it! (Australians must buy it on the Amazon AU electronic store, here).

I have to say, Geoff has come a long way on the issue of sustainable nuclear energy since I first persuaded him to look at the issue seriously back in 2009! The next post on BNC is a new critique by Geoff of a recent Catalyst TV program on the Fukushima aftermath, so read on…