sustainability

another energy-related leak, this one radioactive

As advocates of nuclear fission use the Gulf oil drilling disaster to claim that nuclear is a safe alternative, we ought to keep in mind the latest news from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, where a leak containing thirteen different radioactive substances was found on Friday -- in a pipe in a hole workers dug to find the source of an earlier leak.

Vermont Yankee officials admitted that they had misled state regulators and lawmakers regarding the use of underground pipes to carry radioactive substances.

According to the plant's owners and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the public faced no danger. Whether you believe that the NRC is providing better oversight to nuke plants than the Minerals and Mining Service was to offshore oil drilling, is for you to decide.

Radioactive tritium was discovered around the plant in a monitoring well back in January. According to watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, there is evidence of 15 radioactive leaks at 13 different reactor sites between March 2009 and April 2010, and at least 102 reactor units have had had recurring radioactive leaks into groundwater from 1963 through February 2009.

Controlled nuclear fusion, and "energy amplifier" designs using thorium, may eventually provide practical and safe nuclear power. But waste, safety, fuel limits, and weapons proliferation concerns make uranium and plutonium fission poor choices. We should instead focus our resources on making good use of that large fusion reactor that Providence has located just 93 million miles away.

"top kill" fails to stop leak; place your bets

BP's "top kill" plan to plug the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has failed.

Meanwhile, Irish gambling website PaddyPower.com is giving odds on what species will be the first to go extinct as a result of the spill. Favored to die off is the Kemp's ridley turtle; a $5 bet on this engangered species would win $9 if it's listed as extinct at any time because of the spill.

perhaps the safest car ever build -- killed by the Reagan administration

Imagine, if you will, a four-passenger small car that got 32 mpg and could withstand a 50 mph impact -- front or side -- with only minimal injuries to passengers. Pretty cool, huh? A great counter-argument to bozos who claim that only massive gas-guzzlers can be safe.

Now imagine that such a car was built in the 1970s. By federal government contractors.

Jalopnik has the story of Minicar's Research Safety Vehicles, advanced prototypes that the Carter administration's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created to demonstrate to automakers what was possible in auto safety and build the car of the future -- 1985. They "looked like an AMC Pacer worked over by the set designers of Battlestar Galactica" (original series, obviously) and featured run-flat tires, anti-lock brakes with crash-sensing radar, and dual-stage airbags. These were build by 1979, let me repeat.

With coming of the stupid ages -- a.k.a. the Reagan era -- the RSV's went the way of the solar panels on the White House roof, and our auto industry was set from from government meddling and pressure to make products that would get fewer of us killed:

Like other American inventions such as the VCR, the lithium-ion battery and David Hasselhoff, many of the RSV's technologies only prospered overseas. Anti-lock brakes and air bags were standard on European cars first; Japanese automakers put the first crash-sensing brake system on the market in 2003, nearly 25 years after the RSV sported it. Yet those five-star ratings from NHTSA that have become standard for front crash safety in U.S. cars come from tests at 35 mph, still 15 mph shy of the RSV bar.

Last year, traffic deaths fell to their lowest level since 1961 at 33,963, after remaining stuck at roughly 40,000 for decades, in part because a modern car has more in common with the RSVs than ever before. With smaller cars, tougher fuel rules and bigger worries about oil on the horizon, that 1985 target date for the program may have been set about 30 years too early.

The Bush I era NHTSB eventually destroyed the RSV prototypes -- to "destroy[] the evidence that you could do much better," suggests Minicars's project manager Don Friedman. Turns out, though, that they didn't succeed; two of the prototypes were still in Minicars' possession.

Halliburton behind the Gulf disaster?

Why is it that when I hear that something truly, truly horrible has happened, it is no surprise to learn that Halliburton is involved?

Just 20 hours after Halliburton finished cementing work on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, the well blew and created the Gulf oil spill that has become one of the worst environmental disasters ever.

According to Robert MacKenzie, a former cementing engineer and current managing director of energy and natural resources at FBR Capital Markets, "The initial likely cause of gas coming to the surface had something to do with the cement." A study of 39 well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico by the U.S. Minerals Management Service found that cementing was the most important factor in 18 of them.

And Halliburton has already been accused of a shoddy cement work leading to a major blowout in the Timor Sea last August.

Halliburton delenda est.

climate change resolves India/Bangladesh dispute over island

New Moore Island, a tiny (about 3 square miles) bit of rock in the Bay of Bengal, has been disputed territory between India and Bangladesh for almost three decades. Well, the dispute has finally been resolved: the island no longer exists, completely submerged by rising seas.

T Pyxidis supernova could kill us all! (in 10,000,000 years or so)

Just in case you need something fresh to worry about: recent observations of T Pyxidis, a rare "recurrent nova" consisting of a white dwarf and a sun-like companion orbiting each other -- show that it is much closer than previously thought (just 3,260 light years) and that it could eventually (in about ten million years) go supernova.

A supernova that "close" (in cosmic terms) could alter our atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer, with cataclysmic results for life here on our pale blue dot.

upgraded recycling program coming to Baltimore County

According to the Baltimore County government website, we're going to get an upgraded "single stream" recycling program starting next year. Not only will booth bottles and cans and paper be collected together every week, but an expanded array of materials will be recycled, including plastic bottles of types 1 to 7, wide-mouth plastic containers (like yogurt containers), rigid plastics, spray cans, aluminum foil, and milk and juice cartons.

climate change and the CRU break-in

Back in August, I said "Seems we can look forward to the same sort of lies, manipulation, and manufactured outrage about climate change we're currently enjoying about health care." I hate to say "I told you so", but as we see the same sort of wacko conspiracy theories and the same sort out-of-context quoting as was applied to the health care debate being applied to the stolen emails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University...well, I told you so.

So what's really going on here?

First, some background on the science. We know, as certainly as we know anything, that the greenhouse effect is real, that carbon dioxide, methane, ozone (essentially, ozone up high good, ozone down low bad), and CFCs are greenhouse gasses whose presence in the atmosphere makes the planet warmer.

We know for certain that human activity -- the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, certain agricultural techniques -- is adding to levels of these gasses. CO2 levels have risen from about 280 to nearly 380 ppm over the past century and a half, and this CO2 does not come from the oceans outgassing CO2. It's from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation.

These points are simply not open for debate among rational people. If you wish to dispute them, please go wait in line behind the creationists, the "death panel"ers, the "birthers", the "a missile hit the Pentagon and the WTC was brought down with a controlled demolition!" variety of "9/11 truthers", and the Holocaust deniers. Thanks.

We also know with a high degree of certainty that the planet is warming up. This conclusion takes us into the realm of history, which is never as certain as physics or chemistry -- we can't re-run history like we can a physics experiment. And our knowledge of history is very biased: we have the best data from regions where there were literate civilizations, and have to rely on paleontological methods for the rest of the world. Still, while the details are fuzzy, our certainty that the planet warming is very high. That doesn't mean that measured surface temperatures for every year will be warmer than the previous one, any more than every day in May is going to be warmer than the one before.

You can see some some pictures and some details of the temperature trends here and here.

Knowing that the planet is warming, and knowing that we're doing stuff that tends to make the planet warm up, most people would jump to the conclusion that the first is caused by the second.

But scientists are professional skeptics, and thus have to account for extraordinary possibilities. It could be merely a coincidence: the planet does have natural warming and cooling cycles and natural fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 levels. Real skeptics recognize that this would be an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence -- something on the order of claiming that "yes, Smith pointed a gun at Jones and pulled the trigger, and Jones got a hole in him and died, but the wound actually came from a meteorite that coincidentally hit that precise place at that exact time". Possible, but not something that's going to be accepted over the more usual explanation -- Smith shot Jones -- without some significant evidence.

Real skeptics remain open to the presentation of such evidence, but so far, none has come to light. Proposals that the warming can be accounted for by changes in cosmic rays or by changes in solar luminosity (i.e., the the sun getting brighter; see also Peter Laut's paper here) -- changes that would have to just happen to correspond with the uptick in industrial activity -- haven't panned out.

On the other hand, corporate shills, or those who hold to religious beliefs that their god gave mankind the planet to tear up like a spoiled kid messing up a fancy car, or that "property rights" or "markets" are more important than people, have strong incentive to deny the science. Instead they hold that the IPCC, NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Sciences, the science academies of Brazil, China and India, and numerous other scientific organizations, are all engaged in a sinister conspiracy, with the apparent goal of undermining the national sovereignty of the U.S. and restricting it's God-given right to spew whatever it wants into the atmosphere, in order to...well, that part of the batshit crazy conspiracy theory has never been clear to me. I guess climatologists just hate freedom.

Given the politicization of science, and the prevalence of this sort of batshit crazy conspiracy theory, we can perhaps understand why some climatologists would express frustration -- even express it rudely -- in e-mail intended to be private, shop-talk between colleagues.

So, with that background, let's look at a few of the bits of stolen e-mail causing the most buzz. Time and space only permits me to refute a small part of the batshittery here, but if you want to dig deeper, the discussion threads at realclimate.org are a good place to start.

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